Raipur: The Congress government in Chhattisgarh is opposing the Centre’s decision to auction coal blocks in the state, citing environmental concerns. It is the second opposition-ruled state to challenge the process — the Hemant Soren-led Jharkhand government had Saturday moved the Supreme Court against the auction.
As part of his government’s Atma Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had on 18 June launched the auction of 41 coal blocks for commercial mining. At least nine of these blocks are in Chhattisgarh — Morga 2, Morga South, Madanpur North, Shyang, Fatehpur East, Gare Palma 1/7, Gare Palma 4/7, Sondhia and Shankarpur Bhatgaon.
Chhattisgarh’s Forest, Housing and Environment Minister Mohammad Akbar has now written to Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar demanding that five of the blocks — Morga 2, Morga South, Madanpur North, Shyang and Fatehpur East — which fall in Hasdeo Aranya and the adjoining water catchment area of the Mand River should be kept out of the auctioning process.
Apart from being ecologically sensitive, the area is also part of a proposed elephant reserve, Akbar said in a press statement. “In the view of increasing number of elephants in Chhattisgarh, and growing incidents of human-elephant conflict, it has been decided to declare the 1,995 sq km area adjoining the Hasdeo Aranya as the Lemru Elephant Reserve,” he said. “Work is still ongoing to issue a notification regarding this. To control more such incidents of human-elephant conflict in future, it is necessary to ban mining in the aforementioned area.”
The state government wants to include an additional area of about 250 sq km in the proposed area for the Lemru Elephant Reserve.
Sources in the know and officials of the forest department, however, said the state government is taking no concrete steps to outrightly oppose the auction.
For one, the government is tight-lipped on whether it has granted environmental clearance for the coal blocks — a power it has under the tweaked norms for such projects. In contrast, the Jharkhand government has made it clear that it has not granted its clearance to the 22 coal blocks in the state, with Chief Minister Hemant Soren saying the Modi government’s decision was a “blatant disregard of cooperative federalism”.
In Chhattisgarh, a senior official of the forest department, who did not want to be named, said the state government is opposed to mining in only some of the coal blocks and even that is only due to tremendous pressure from environmental activists and wildlife enthusiasts.
“The state government has absolutely no objection to mining in four of the blocks — Gare Palma 1/7, Gare Palma 4/7, Sondhia and Shankarpur Bhatgaon mines,” the official told ThePrint.
Environmentalists in the state believe that the Modi government’s decision will lead to complete destruction of areas in the Hasdeo Aranya and Mand river.
“Mining in the coal belt of Hasdeo Aranya and Mand river will not only cause enormous environmental damages but will also lead to large-scale displacement of tribal villagers,” said Alok Shukla, convener of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan and an environmentalist of repute. “It might lead to destruction of forest areas protected for several decades.”
Shukla also said his organisation will vehemently oppose the mining even if the auction goes through. “Until now, all the 20 gram panchayats in the area have expressed their opposition to the proposal through letters to the Prime Minister and union ministers concerned,” he said. “However, if the government does not agree then further strategy will be decided. If the need arises and time permits, we will also seek the court’s help.”
Villagers have written to PM Modi
Since the government’s decision on 18 June, representatives of all 20 gram panchayats in the area have written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and expressed their opposition to the auction process.
“When the coal blocks were being auctioned for the first time in 2015, 20 gram sabhas of our region had unanimously passed a resolution opposing the allotment of the mines,” their letter reads. “On the basis of our discussion with the people, we can say that the tribals of the area are still opposed to allocation and operation of the mines and are fully determined to not to provide consent for mining in future also, which is legally mandatory.”
The letter adds: “Auctioning process of five mines in the area commencing from 18 June is very unfortunate and this process should be halted completely.”
According to the gram sabha representatives, provisions of ‘self-reliance and self-governance of local community are already applicable under PESA Act, Forest Rights Act and Fifth Schedule. But the central government is not acting in accordance with Constitutional values.”
Modi govt breaking its own laws: Experts
Experts also said the coal block auction process was contrary to the spirit of Supreme Court orders issued in 2014.
“In 2014, the Supreme Court had banned coal mining in the wake of the coal scam,” said Shukla. “The court had said in its order that mining should be done only for the end-purpose set in the interest of the country. In other words, the Supreme Court had effectively banned commercial mining.”
He said the Supreme Court had also made it quite clear that the primary responsibility for allocation of coal blocks will lie with the state governments. “But several changes were introduced in the Mines (Special Provisions) Act, first in 2015 and later in March 2020 to pave the way for commercial mining. Along with this, the central government has also kept the states out of the coal block allocation process. This decision is also contrary to the basic spirit of the country’s federal structure.”
Priyanshu Gupta, another environmentalist in the Kachar region of Hasdeo and Mand rivers, said, “Among all the coal mining zones of the country, forests of Hasdeo and Mand Cachar are considered to be most sensitive in terms of wildlife biodiversity. This is the reason that in 2010, the then UPA government had included this entire area in its’ No Go’ policy and later the incumbent government too had declared this entire area as an inviolate zone.”
He added, “According to these two policy rules, mining operations cannot be conducted in 18 out of 20 mining blocks falling in this area.”