No consultations were held with the coal bearing states of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra before the Union Government arbitrarily chose to start the auction of 41 coal blocks spread in these three states. As a coincidence, all three today have governments formed by the opposition.
All three states have protested and challenged the auction before the Supreme Court. A conspicuous exception is Odisha, which has not protested although coal blocks in the dense forests of Chendipada in Angul also threaten to destroy biodiversity.
BJP leaders, including the former Jharkhand chief minister Babulal Marandi, predictably sprang to the defence of the central government. And they predictably accused the critics of acting against national interest. The argument they offer is that the auction would bring in investment in mining, generate employment for people and revenue for the government, and help meet the country’s energy needs.
In a televised address the Prime Minister also claimed that environmental concerns had been addressed and that Methane gas trapped in coal beds would be exploited commercially to pave the way for clean energy.
Most of these coal blocks are in dense forests and fall in tribal inhabited areas protected by the Constitution’s Fifth Schedule. The Fifth Schedule as well as the Forest Rights Act provide tribal inhabitants the right to decide on land use and mining. The Gram Sabha has the power to turn down proposals to fell trees and allow men and machines to invade the forest. The PM’s unilateral decision to have commercial auction of coal blocks therefore run into Constitutional bottlenecks that the Supreme Court has been called upon to adjudicate.
Even more astonishingly, the BJP, which made a song and dance about the death of an elephant in Kerala recently after swallowing a fruit with explosives, put there by farmers to kill wild boars, seems to have no problem with the decision to allow coal mining in elephant corridors in Chhattisgarh and tiger corridors in Maharashtra.
The coal block auction is being opposed by activists and environmentalists alike. And the five questions being raised are the following:
WHAT EXPLAINS THE HASTE?: With power plants operating at much less than their capacity, with demand for power having declined in the wake of the pandemic and the lockdown, why is the central government in such tearing hurry ? This is not the first time that the Government has tried to auction coal blocks. As many as 81 coal blocks have been allotted or auctioned during the last six years. But only around a dozen of them are operational while some have been surrendered. What is then the justification for the haste in the middle of a pandemic and lockdown?
WHY ALLOW AUCTION OF BLOCKS in ‘NO GO’ AREAS?: Why auction coal blocks in dense forests when blocks in not so dense forests are available ? As many as 500 coal blocks were identified in 2010 as ‘no go’ areas where for environmental and ecological reasons, mining activities were not to be allowed. The number has been whittled down by the Government to just five in 2020. This in other words means that the Government is allowing for massive degradation of forests.
FOSSIL FUEL IS SUNSET INDUSTRY: Why is the Government allowing coal mining when much of the world is moving away from fossil fuel? If Coal India Limited’s Vision Statement for 2030 is to be believed, CIL itself is in a position to meet the demand for coal for the next 10 years. Why then allow corporates access to dense forests and mine coal in unmined areas?
WHAT’S THE CATCH IN EXPORTING COAL?: India imports coking coal or metallurgical coal because of high ash content in Indian coal. Burning ash generates much less heat than burning carbon. While India has large reserves of low-grade coal and most power plants in the country are designed to deal with it, it is inconceivable that other countries would welcome what is seen as a dirty source of energy. So, what is the catch?
WHY NOT ALLOW CIL TO MINE?: Public sector Coal India Ltd. has 45 years of experience in coal mining. It has the expertise, the technology, the manpower to carry out coal mining. Why is the Government not keen to allow CIL to mine these coal blocks, if at all mining is necessary? The decision to allow auction by unidentified, unknown and possibly inexperienced corporate players does not quite smell right.
WHAT KIND OF EMPLOYMENT CAN THE AUCTION ENSURE?: Employees and miners of public sector Coal India Ltd. enjoy benefits of healthcare, Provident Fund, housing and education for children. What kind of employment can private, corporates for profit ensure? While the Government claims the auctions will generate lakhs of employment, in practice the government in one blow is removing the social security and living wages ensured by the nationalization of coal mines by Indira Gandhi between 1971 and 1973.
HAS ONGC SUCCEEDED IN COMMERCIALLY EXPLOITING COAL BASED METHANE?: For half a century it has been known that underground coalmines have methane gas trapped in coalbeds, making underground mining dangerous and extraction difficult. It has also been common knowledge that methane gas can provide an alternate source of energy if only it can be trapped, refined and put in a form that will make it transportable over long distances. There were even talks of exporting methane to the United States! But all such efforts have come a cropper. ONGC and CIL have both sunk a minor fortune in trying to exploit the gas and failed. Has it overnight become possible and profitable ?
The day after the Prime Minister launched the auction, former Forest and Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh wrote to Prakash Javadekar, calling for cancellation of the auction.