As many as 417 out of 835 current and future coal blocks must be categorised as ‘inviolate areas’ as per hydrological parameters, information obtained under the Right to Information Act by Greenpeace India, and released on Thursday has revealed. These coal blocks, if auctioned, pose serious threats to fresh water sources present in the forest areas, the NGO has said. These coal blocks mostly fall in the five states: Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh.
According to a statement put out by the organisation, last year the Forest Survey of India (FSI) assessed 835 coal blocks based on the draft parameters for identification of inviolate forest areas. For applying the hydrology parameter, the Union Environment Ministry recommended excluding 250 m. on either side of a major water stream while marking the boundaries of coal blocks. This renders over half of the coal blocks as ‘partially inviolate’, according to the RTI information.
The documents received by Greenpeace India under RTI, and made available to The Hindu , involve communications by the Forest Survey of India, Ministry of Environment and Forests and Coal Ministry.
The FSI has noted in a communication to the Union environment ministry that 121 of the 835 coal blocks assessed had ongoing mining activities, and of these 4 were in ‘inviolate forest’ areas and 117 were affected by the hydrological layer, which means they encroached upon river beds or water streams. The Coal Ministry in its communication raised objection to the ‘hydrological layer’ proposed by the Environment Ministry contending that almost all coal mines in the country encroached upon river basins, including that of Damodar, Mahanadi, Wardha, Sonbhadra and Godavari.
Drought and mining
“Mining in the forests even beyond the 250m. of the river banks often has a dramatic detrimental impact on the catchment areas, including water pollution, erosion and worsening water scarcity during dry season,” says Nandikesh Sivalingam, senior campaigner, Greenpeace India. He adds that if all the streams in the river basins are to be taken into consideration, the impact on central India’s water sources could be much higher. Raising concerns that given the drought situation in the country such inevitable consequences of coal mining could destroy precious freshwater sources, Mr. Sivalingam said that it's been close to four years since the exercise to identify inviolate areas started but the Union environment ministry is still dragging its feet on this policy while the coal ministry is going ahead with auctioning and allotting these forest areas.
In its statement released on Thursday, Greenpeace India has demanded that the Union environment ministry fix a deadline to finalise, publicise and enforce the inviolate policy and publish the forest areas/coal blocks that are inviolate along with the geo-referenced maps, for all the concerned stakeholders - including affected forest communities - to be consulted before the land is considered for mining.