Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh on Friday denied permission for mining activity in the Mahan block of the Singrauli coalfield in Madhya Pradesh. The Coal Ministry allocated this block in April 2006 for captive use by Essar Power (1200 mw power plant) and Hindalco Industries (650 mw plant). Ramesh has recommended that the power projects be given alternative coal linkage, possibly from the Sohagpur coalfield.
The minister’s recommendation will now be considered by the group of ministers headed by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee on environment and coal issues at its next meeting. There has been intense pressure to open up the Mahan coal block. Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan had asked Ramesh to clear the proposal “on the grounds that it would boost economic activity in the state.” Chouhan even cited the environment ministry’s tardiness in giving clearance as an example of the Centre’s alleged discrimination against the state. But the chief minister of the BJP-ruled state wasn’t the only one exerting pressure to clear the project.
With Shashi Ruia of Essar and Kumaramangalam Birla of Hindalco routinely appealing to the prime minister PMO and the finance minister for “expeditious forest clearance”, the Prime Minister’s Office kept up the steady follow of letters to Ramesh. Even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stepped in asking Ramesh to “take appropriate follow up action” on the issues raised by Ruia. One factor supporting clearance was that the block had been allocated long before the “go/no-go” classification of forest areas became an issue.
However, the statutory Forest Advisory Committee, which recommends the diversion of forest land for non-forest use, had denied clearance to this proposal as early as 2008. The other argument that has been proffered is that the companies have made substantial investments, of nearly Rs 3,600 crore, in the plants linked to this block. As early as March 2010, Ramesh wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that he couldn’t agree with this logic. Ramesh wrote, “Shri Shashi Ruia says that the coal mine should be cleared because 65 per cent of the power plant is ready. I cannot agree, Sir, to this logic. I have repeatedly raised my objection to such fait accompli arguments in Cabinet meetings, if you will kindly recall.”
In light of the investments made, Ramesh mooted the idea of an alternative linkage from Sohagpur in May 2010. Ramesh lists four key factors for denying permission. The block is located in a biodiversity-rich area and permitting mining would destroy good natural forest cover and interfere with wildlife habitats. The July 2011 field report by a subcommittee of the Forest Advisory Committee brought to light another important aspect– the Mahan coal-block is located in catchment area of the Rihand Reservoir.
Mining in the area gives rise to “a high degree of probability” of excessive siltation due to denudation of the slopes and hills. “Implicit in the recommendation of the FAC sub-committee to withhold permission for forest clearance is the need to carry out more detailed environmental impact assessment studies,” the order states. Economic Times