MoEF bends: clearance to “no-go” coal block

Former minister Ramesh had refused to oblige, suggesting an alternate coal block in 2011

prasanna

Prasanna Mohanty | November 5, 2012



On November 1, news agency PTI reported (which was carried by several national dailies) that the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) has given ‘stage 1’ forest clearance (which means ‘in principle’ clearance to divert over 1,000 hectare of forest land) for Mahan coal block (in Singrauli coalfield) in Madhya Pradesh to Essar Power’s nearby 1,200 MW power plant.

The PTI quotes Essar Power for putting out the story. There are subsequent news analyses in national dailies too but not a word about when this clearance was given by MoEF. The MoEF website provides whole lot of information about its activities but not a word about it.

The clearance comes following a directive from the GoM, headed by former finance minister and now president Pranab Mukherjee. The GoM had overruled MoEF’s objections to grant forest clearance. The concluding paragraph of a communiqué, dated July 8, 2011, from former environment and forests minister Jairam Ramesh, that refused to grant the forest clearance, says it all:

“In this backdrop, I am unable to consider the Mahan coal block for stage 1 clearance. However, in keeping with the proposal I had made to the GoM on April 7, 2011 to resolve the issues relating to coal blocks in “no-go” areas, the Mahan coal block is, therefore, being submitted to the GoM for its consideration with a recommendation that an alternative coal linkage be provided for the two power plants. The MoEF has identified the Sohagpur coalfield in Shahdol district as a possible alternative linkage.”

Dismissing this, GoM insisted on Mahan coal block and now the current minister, Jayanti Natrajan, has apparently succumbed to it.

We don’t know what reservations Natrajan had but from Ramesh’s communiqué we know what he and MoEF had in 2011. But before that, a brief note on the subject.

In 2006, coal ministry allocated Mahan coal block for captive use of two power plants - Essar Power’s 1200 MW plant and Hindalco’s 650 MW plant. MoEF considered it for forest clearance four times between 2008 and 2009 but didn’t give ‘in principle’ forest clearance (environment clearance had been given separately earlier in 2008) because of “complexity” of the issues involved. In 2010, Mahan block was identified as a “no-go” area, where mining can’t be allowed.

Then there were pressures from the industrialists involved and GoM put pressures. Ramesh said 3 factors were put forward for clearance. Apart from pressures from Madhya Pradesh chief minister (which he records) and the fact that the coal block had been allocated in 2006, four years’ before “no-go” area issue came up, it was said that “substantial investments to the tune of Rs 3,600 crore (reported by an inter-ministerial team set up by the PMO in July 2010 and shown in Annexture-V) appear to have already been made in the power plants linked with the Mohan coal block”.

Ramesh then goes on to remark: “This leaves aside the question of why the plants were started in the first place when the forest clearances had not been obtained. Fait accompli has become far too common in environmental and forest clearances.”

Actually, it is a gross violation of environmental laws to start a project without such clearances and make the projects liable to be dismantled and fines imposed on the project proponents.

It is clear GoM was more keen to oblige the industrialists, rather than honour the law of the land.

But how Natrajan, who went public with her opposition to the national investment board (NIB) being set up by writing to the prime minister to say that she was against any attempt to bypass the environment and forest clearances, developed a cold feet is another story altogether.

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