The union’s environment ministry has relaxed mandatory compliance standards for coal mining expansion projects citing rising demand for coal amid an ongoing energy crisis – a move that has been criticized by environmentalists, especially since the coal ministry has said there is no shortage of coal in the country.
Under the revised criteria, coal mines with environmental (EC) permits can now expand 40%, up to 50% without any environmental impact assessment or public consultation.
In an office memo (OM) dated May 7, the Environment Ministry said the change was made after the Coal Ministry sounded an alarm about pressure on local coal supplies.
OM stated, “The ministry is receiving a request from the Ministry of Coal stating that there is tremendous pressure on the local coal supply in the country, and all efforts are being made to meet the demand for coal for all sectors.” “It has been requested that the existing coal blocks be allowed to expand production capacity taking into account the reserves available in the coal block and complying with the terms of the previous European Commission.”
“Given the necessity that has arisen, it has been decided, as a special exemption, that coal mining projects which have been granted an expansion of the European Commission up to 40% of the original capacity of the European Commission in accordance with the provisions of the previous operating regimes, shall be granted the expansion of the European Commission to increase their production capacity to 50% of the original EC capacity,” said the operating manual, a copy of which HT has seen. She added that this is on the condition that mining continues in the same lease area and coal reserves are available.
The ministry also said that the special exemption is provided for a period of six months from the date of OM issuance (May 7).
Certainly, the Ministry of Coal has made it clear time and time again that the current energy crisis was not due to coal shortage but due to non-payment of Coal India Ltd by states, delays in raising coal and poor planning.
The process of relaxing the environmental standards for coal mining expansion began in 2017. OM’s Environment Ministry on September 15 of that year exempted the expansion of coal mining projects by up to 40% in two to three phases from public hearings. The ministry issued another OM on April 11 this year, stating that the public hearing was exempted to expand up to 50% but in stages. Instead, a public consultation was recommended to take the responses of the affected communities in writing.
With the latest operating system, up to 50% of coal mine expansion has been exempted from public consultation, environmental impact assessment and environmental management plan submission.
This is being done to address the current coal crisis and to relieve the pressure caused by the coal shortage. There are not many of these proposals that want to expand up to 50%. At the moment, only 11 mines need to be expanded up to 50%,” said a senior Environment Ministry official, who asked not to be identified. “The exemption is only made for six months. Therefore, we do not expect any significant environmental impacts due to this relaxation.”
Experts said the move and its reasons have not been explained to the people likely to be affected by the coal mine expansions.
“The operating manual allows for an additional 10 percentage point expansion not only without public hearings, but also without impact assessments. While the Ministry of Environment has acknowledged the coal crisis, it is important to recognize that mine expansions are taking place in areas with long-standing jobs problems. pollution and unrealized rehabilitation,” said Kanchi Kohli, a legal researcher at the Center for Policy Research. . “These changes are likely to exacerbate local disputes further, as regulators are not trying to explain the rationale behind the decisions to people who are likely to bear the impact of coal mining expansions.”
Meanwhile, the Department of Environment’s Forestry Conservation has allowed mining leases, which have been canceled or terminated, to be transferred to new leaseholders still under consideration by states or the center, without the need to apply for new deforestation.
The Karnataka government has sought clarification from the center as to whether canceled leases can also be considered for such a transfer to clear forests to new leaseholders. The Department of the Environment, in a letter dated April 27 and addressed to the Chief Conservation Officer of Forests in All State and Union Territories, clarified that all mines whose leases had expired or had been terminated could be handed over to new tenants.
On July 7, 2021, the ministry issued guidelines on the transfer of forest permits for expired mining leases. The exemption was intended to facilitate the smooth delivery of mines that are currently being auctioned in states such as Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh.
With the ministry clarification, mines in Goa and Karnataka whose lease contracts have been canceled by the Supreme Court can resume mining.
HT reported last week that the Goa government had issued notices to 88 iron ore mines, whose leases were canceled by the Supreme Court in 2018, to remove their machinery and equipment from the mines. Once the state government has control of the mines, it will have the ability to resume mining, in accordance with the rules under which the notices were issued. The government gave tenants one month to evict.
“There is a basic assumption that a supporter seeking approval to convert the forest will ultimately be the beneficiary of the mine lease transfer. It remains a missed opportunity to learn about the legacy of social and environmental impacts that may have been accumulating due to years of unresolved illegal wrongdoing,” he said. Kohli: “There is a serious need to address the substantive issues rather than treat these transfers as procedural.”