Centre’s nod for mining in 170,000 hectares of forest in Chhattisgarh

Hindustan Times || Jayashree Nandi, New Delhi || March 21, 2019

Hasdeo Arand is one of the largest contiguous stretches of very dense forest in central India, spanning about 170,000 hectares.

The Union environment ministry has given environmental clearance for open cast coal mining in Parsa in Chhattisgarh’s dense Hasdeo Arand forests, in a decision that could have far-reaching consequences for forest cover conservation in India.

Hasdeo Arand is one of the largest contiguous stretches of very dense forest in central India, spanning about 170,000 hectares. Parsa is one of the 30 coal blocks in Hasdeo Arand and is owned by the Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Ltd (RVUNL).

The mine, which has a capacity of 5 metric tonnes per annum (MPTA), will be operated by Rajasthan Collieries Limited (RCL), a unit of Adani Enterprises Limited. It received stage 1 forest clearance in February this year, but the minutes of the forest advisory committee’s meeting highlighted that a section of the 841 hectares to be diverted for the mine lies in very dense forest.

The Parsa mine – open cast mining involves digging for coal after removing all the vegetation and soil from the area — came up for consideration of the environment ministry’s expert appraisal committee (EAC) thrice before clearance was finally granted on February 21, 2019.

Earlier, in its February 15, 2018 meeting, the EAC had sought the State Tribal Welfare Department’s comments on the status of gram sabha consent for the project and the impact on tribal populations. It also sought the state wildlife board’s opinion on the impact of mining on the elephant corridor that runs through the forest.

In its July 24, 2018 meeting, the EAC again sought the same clarifications. The minutes of the meeting suggest the RVUNL submitted information on these two queries in September 2018 but there are no details on whether gram sabha consent was taken. The EAC also enquired whether there were pending legal cases related to coal mining in Hasdeo Arand.

There are two cases pending in the Supreme Court — a petition by Chhattisgarh-based lawyer Sudiep Shrivastava seeking de-allocation of RVUNL’s Parsa-Kente Extension coal block (adjoining Parsa open cast mine) in Chhattisgarh and cancellation of the joint venture and coal delivery agreement with Adani Enterprises Limited; and another petition by RVUNL seeking relaxation of the National Green Tribunal’s direction restricting mining in certain forest areas of Chhattisgarh.

The forest advisory committee sought the opinion of the additional solicitor general (ASG) on considering clearance for Parsa mine in view of these pending cases. After the ASG observed that “the pending case has no bearing with the Parsa coal block as such,” the forest advisory committee went ahead with giving in-principle forest clearance to the mine.

The minutes of the EAC’s February 21 meeting, however, states that environmental clearance granted to Parsa mine is subject to pending matters in the Supreme Court and Chhattisgarh high court on coal mining in the state.

The EAC has laid down other conditions too, such as a third-party assessment (by a technical institution or agency) of environmental compliance once every three years.

On February 20, the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan wrote to the EAC on environmental and legal concerns related to the project. In a letter, it suggested that two villages in north Chhattisgarh’s Surguja district complained to the district collector that gram sabha consent was allegedly forged.

Another issue raised by activists and legal experts is that forest clearance to an adjoining mine on the Hasdeo Arand fringe — Parsa East and Kete Basao captive coal block — was granted on condition that the Chhattisgarh government would not allow opening up of the main Hasdeo Arand area. However, the Parsa open cast mine that was granted clearance last month is in the core Hasdeo Arand forests.

“Apart from pending legal issues and procedural lapses, the grant of approval [for open cast mining at Parsa] completely goes against the precautionary principle that is the need of the hour. Initiating mining will fragment one of the last remaining contiguous forest patches in central India, violate forest rights and increase human-wildlife conflict,” said Kanchi Kohli, a legal researcher at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) in Delhi.

In 2009, the environment ministry categorised Hasdeo Arand as a “no-go” area for mining for its rich, unfragmented forest cover. Environment activists fear the approval for mining will likely be detrimental to forest conservation.

“Environmental clearance issued to Parsa mine is illegal because the forest advisory committee had earlier held that Hasdeo Arand cannot be opened up for mining. The Forest Survey of India, in a 2014 report, had recommended that Hasdeo Arand should be inviolate for mining” said Shrivastava, the lawyer who has moved court for de-allocation of a coal block adjacent to Parsa. RVUNL, which owns Parsa, said it has all necessary permissions. “We have received all permissions except a final forest clearance, which will come through anytime. The cases pending in the Supreme Court are related to other coal blocks, so they will not affect this project,” said SS Meena, director (technical) at RVUNL.

An Adani Group spokesperson said: “The Adani Group is a responsible corporate citizen and it is evident from our care for the environment and communities. Besides mining responsibly, Adani Group has interests in solar power, city gas distribution and road construction, among others, in the state of Chhattisgarh. We are committed to the people and ecology of Chhattisgarh and the country’s energy security in all our endeavours.