DESPITE A biodiversity report from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) warning that the forests in Chhattisgarh’s Hasdeo Aranya Coal Field (HACF) (an idea of the then UPA government) should be declared a “no-go area”, the state government is pushing for permission to start phase II of mining in the PEKB coal block, in the same area, records reviewed by The Indian Express show.
The PEKB — Parsa (East) and Kete Basan — coal block is owned by Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited and run by Adani Enterprises, which is the official Mine Developer and Operator (MDO) in this venture.
The records from a meeting of the Union Environment Ministry’s Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) on October 28 show the committee analysed an “instant request” for clearance filed by the state government. The FAC was discussing on diversion of forest land for PEKB coal block’s phase II spread across 1,136-hectare forests.
According to the minutes of the meeting, the state forwarded an opinion of its Advocate on Record that the PEKB proposal may be considered as per law as issues related to biodiversity are being addressed in the Biodiversity Assessment Report submitted by the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE), Dehradun.
On its part, the records show, the ICFRE showed the green signal for mining in “four contiguous coal blocks” in the HACF area. “Tara, Parsa, PEKB and Kete extension, that are either already opened or in advanced stage of getting statutory clearances/TOR approved, can be considered for mining,” the ICFRE said in its report.
According to the minutes, the FAC finally deferred a decision on the issue.
But the minutes also show that the ICFRE and the state ignored several red flags raised by the WII in its own assessment, which was included as Volume II in the ICFRE’s report.
“The coal mines along with the associated infrastructure development would result in loss and fragmentation of habitat. Mitigating such effects on wildlife, particularly the animals with large home ranges such as elephants is seldom possible,” the WII said.
The WII called the human-elephant conflict in the state “already acute” and “escalating” and warned that any further threat to the landscape could make the “conflict mitigation impossible for the state to manage”.
It said: “Opening up of the demarcated coal blocks in the HACF would compromise the imperatives of biodiversity conservation and livelihood of forest-dependent local communities. Even the effects of the operational mines of PEKB and Chotia need to be tactfully mitigated too, wherever possible.”
The ICFRE report was prepared in association with WII as it was one of the conditions stipulated by the National Green Tribunal after the stage I clearance was given to the coal block in 2012.
The WII did not respond to requests for comment from The Indian Express. The ICFRE did not respond to queries from The Indian Express on why it gave the green signal for mining in four blocks despite warnings from WII.
“Following orders of hon. National Green Tribunal, dated 24.3.2014, the Chhattisgarh government assigned ICFRE (Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education) to conduct a bio-diversity assessment study of the entire Hasdeo Aranya on January 29, 2019,” the state government said in a statement issued in Hindi.
“Parantu kewal unhi binduon par jin par antim roop se sehmati bani, use hi vistrut report par shamil karte hue rajya shasan ko aawashyak karyawahi hetu bheja gaya (Only those points were included in the report submitted to the government for necessary action on which there was mutual agreement),” it said, referring to ICFRE and WII.
The state government said it never appointed the WII for any report. It said that a “brief report on limited points related to wildlife was sought from the WII by ICFRE through an internal report” responding to a list of questions by The Indian Express.
So far, six coal blocks have been allocated in HACF, of which two are operational for mining: PEKB block, and Chotia I and II block. PEKB was to be mined in two stages, with the first starting in 2013 and continuing for at least 15 years. In the second stage, records show, an extended area of 1,136 hectares would be mined.
However, according to minutes of the FAC meeting, “due to enhanced production capacity, the mining activities of phase I would be over in 2021” – hence permission has been sought to divert forest land for phase II.
According to Chhattisgarh government sources, Rajasthan, which has invested Rs 40,000 crore in thermal power projects in Chhattisgarh, had also written to it on the issue.
Another block in HACF owned by RRVUNL, Parsa, has received forest and environment clearance, although the tribal community in the area is protesting the allocation. It received stage II clearance on October 21, upon recommendation from the government.
On October 13, over 350 tribals from two districts walked over 300 km to Raipur to register their protest. A day later, Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel met the protesters and assured them that the “Congress government has been standing with the tribals and will continue to do so”.
Alok Shukla, the convenor of Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan who had marched with the tribals to Raipur, claimed both the state and the Centre were encouraging an environmental crisis, which even experts believed would be unmanageable. “They are ignoring the warnings, and pushing for clearances in front of the FAC. This was clearly done under corporate pressure,” he alleged.