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Coal blocks to corporates to affect people's health, pollute air, water: Letter to PM

Dr Rajendra Singh
Counterview Desk
As many as 140 concerned individuals and civil society organizations led by Dr Rajendra Singh, known as the “waterman of India”, have strongly protested against the Government of India move to auction 41 coal blocks in several states, stating, the mining in those areas would adversely affect the river catchments, reduce the water inflows and also pollute the water that is consumed not only by the tribal communities who reside in the forest areas but also by the communities that live downstream.
In a letter, jointly prepared by well-known civil society networks Jal Biradari, mines, mineral & People (mm&P), and Aadivasi Ekata Parishad, and addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with copies to the chief ministers of the affected states – Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Jharkhand and Maharashtra – the letter says, the decision to auction the coal blocks undermine several environmental and forest rights laws, insisting, it will also affect agriculture but health of the people, and runs counter to the vision set out by the country’s water resources ministry.

Text:

We understand that the Union Ministry of Coal is going ahead with the auction of 41 coal blocks in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Jharkhand and Maharashtra and that the private players to whom those coal blocks will be allotted will have the freedom to mine the coal and put it to any end-use they wish. Apparently, the government is planning to augment domestic coal production to reduce dependence on imports. Also, the coal auctions and coal mining will bring some revenues for the Centre and the States.
As a part of the civil society and, in particular, as those concerned about the need to conserve the existing fresh water sources in the country and revive those on the decline, we feel that the proposed coal mining activity will adversely affect the catchments of several important rivers in the northern and the eastern parts of the country. Therefore, the proposed coal auctions will not be prudent.
In order to elicit the views of the civil society, we conducted a webinar on July 4, 2020 in which several persons including advocates, environmental activists, women representatives, students etc. had participated. The webinar was held under the guidance of Dr Rajendra Singh of Tarun Bharat Sangh, Rajasthan. We enclose a summary of the deliberations that took place at the webinar. The concerns expressed at the webinar are briefly as follows:

Adverse impact on the catchments of several important rivers

The proposed coal blocks are largely located in dense forests which overlap the catchments of several rivers that constitute the lifeline of the communities downstream. The forest areas where mining will take place are rich in bio-resources and are home for a wide range of protected wild life species.
Handing over such a scarce resource to private players will amount to allowing the latter to profiteer at the cost of the public exchequer
Mining in those areas will adversely affect the river catchments, reduce the water inflows and also pollute the water that is consumed not only by the tribal communities who reside in the forest areas but also by the communities that live downstream. This will not only affect agriculture but also the health of the people, running counter to the vision set out by you for the Union Ministry of Jal Shakti.

Damage to the environment and wild life

We owe it to the posterity to conserve the environment and its rich biodiversity. Any loss in biodiversity can never be made good. Moreover, the value of the forest produce and the other bioresources that will be lost as a result of coal mining will far exceed the meagre benefits that twill accrue from it to the government. Therefore, purely on the basis of economic logic, the coal auctions do not stand to reason.

Adverse impact on the tribal communities

The coal blocks which are being auctioned cover several tribal tracts notified under the Fifth Schedule to the Constitution, which confers special rights on the tribal communities. The apex court, in several important cases, has reiterated that mining activity in the Scheduled Areas should not be entrusted to private players and coal mining if unavoidable should be carried out by cooperatives of the tribals or the government agencies.
In addition, under the two laws, namely, the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act,1996 (PESA) and the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (known popularly as the Forest Rights Act), no projects can be taken up without the prior consent of the local tribal Gram Sabhas. Since no such consultation has taken place, we feel that the proposed coal auctions will violate the statute and may lead to avoidable litigation.
Anyway, since coal mining in the forests where the tribal reside will disrupt their lives, the least that the government ought to have done is to consult them beforehand. Failure to do so runs counter to the democratic spirit that underlued the Constitution.

Coal mining and its use are highly polluting activities

Coal contains toxic pollutants such as zinc, cadmium, arsenic, lead, mercury and radioactive isotopes that cause irreparable damage to the health of the people. Both the Centre and the States are incurring substantial expenditure on public health and that expenditure will become counter-productive if the health of the people is allowed to be affected by pollution in the air and in water. In the case of health, prevention is always better than cure, less expensive and will have more long lasting benefits.

Should coal production be augmented?

In view of the climate concerns and the impact of coal use on the global atmospheric temperatures, there has been a worldwide attempt to move away from coal towards renewable energy. Moreover, in India, there is excess dependence of the power system on thermal power, especially coal-based power, that has forced the coalbased power plants to operate at low capacity utilisation factors and add to the unit cost of electricity to the consumer.
In that context, we feel that it will not be prudent to move in the direction of higher coal use. Instead, India should go all out to uitilise the power house of solar energy. Roof-top solar generation in replacement of coalbased electricity will bring about a radical transformation of the energy scene to the benefit of the consumer.

Should a scarce natural resource like coal be handed over to private players?

Like any other natural resource, coal belongs to the people and the government is a trustee of it on behalf of the public. More important is the fact that, unlike bioresources, coal is a non-renewable resource. Handing over such a scarce resource to the private players will amount to allowing the latter to profiteer at the cost of the public exchequer.
Public control over coal mining and extraction of coal in line with the concept of sustainability should guide the public policy in this regard. In fact, these were the considerations that prompted the then government in the early seventies to nationalise the coal industry. We feel that it will not be desirable to reverse that policy.
We earnestly appeal to you not to proceed with the proposed coal auctions and, instead, adopt a policy as indicated above to move in the direction of renewable energy based on distributed generation. We are sure that you will ponder over what we have collectively opined and proceed accordingly.
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