Allowing Coal Auction in Very Dense Forest Areas Will Be ‘Triple Disaster’: Jairam Ramesh

The former environment minister expressing ‘deep sense of shock’ over the Centre's recent announcement to fully open up commercial coal mining for the private sector.

New Delhi: Former environment minister Jairam Ramesh has written to the present environment minister Prakash Javadekar expressing ‘deep sense of shock’ over the government’s recent announcement to fully open up commercial coal mining for the private sector through the auction of 41 mines. Of the 41 coal blocks, 11 are located in Madhya Pradesh, 9 each in Chhatisgarh, Odisha and Jharkhand and 3 in Maharashtra.

Ramesh has said that the government’s decision to allow mining in ‘no go’ areas will be a ‘triple disaster’ as the mining and transportation of coal will impose high environmental cost, it will lead to loss of very dense forest cover and it will add adversely affect public health due to air pollution associated with coal mining.

“The Prime Minister and you have spoken eloquently in global forums on India’s commitment to fight global warming. What sort of commitment is this that coal blocks in very dense forest areas are being opened up for mining?” he asked Javadekar.

During Ramesh’s tenure as minister, 49% of the coal blocks spread over 6,00,000 hectares were declared ‘no go zones’ – where mining should only be considered after adherence to strict environment and forest laws. This has considerably been diluted over the years.

According to a report in the Hindustan Times, several of the 41 coal mines which the government has now opened up for commercial mining are located in biodiversity rich forest areas. Some of the mines, the report said, are located in the Hasdeo Arand forests – one of the largest contiguous dense forest stretch in India – in Chhattisgarh.

Jairam Ramesh and Prakash Javadekar. Photo: PTI/The Wire

Nine sarpanches – village heads – from within Hasdeo Arand have written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to reconsider the decision to allow commercial coal mining in these areas. They argue that the decision goes against the idea of ‘atmanirbharta’, or self-reliance, and will lead to the displacement of people, loss of livelihood and culture of Adivasis whose lives are intrinsically linked to the forest.

“It is unfortunate that when the communities are already grappling with the COVID-19 crisis, they are faced with this uncertainty and threat of displacement,” the letter read.

In Ramesh’s letter to Javadekar, he also took exception to Modi’s reference to ‘diamonds’ in his speech while unveiling the auction. “The Prime Minister had compared coal to diamonds yesterday. This is the language of 1970s and early 1980s. Nobody concerned with global warming and climate change now would have made such a statement,” Ramesh wrote.

Modi had said, “It’s a matter of coal but we have a dream to achieve diamond through the [auction] process.”

Coal is among the biggest contributors to climate change and the recently released government report on climate change noted that India has already witnessed 0.7º C of warming and surface air temperature is likely to rise by 4.4º C till the end of the century.

Alok Shukla, convenor of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, argues that there is no need for a new coal mine auction process to open up new mines for extraction. “We already see that renewables are increasing in capacity fast and are replacing coal based electricity generation. And that is the direction the world is going in. Most countries in the world are moving away from coal. Banks are not financing coal projects. And in this environment, we are planning to open up new coal mines. It is quite baffling. This must be stopped,” he said.

That’s what Ramesh has demanded too. In his letter to Javadekar, he has asked the government to ensure “that the auction of coal blocks in ecologically fragile and sensitive areas is cancelled immediately.”