Economic growth at the cost of environment: A case of Mahan coal block

By Priya Chetty on June 18, 2015

The current NDA government (2015) under the leadership of Narendra Modi made promises that will place India on a strong foot internationally and the environment is one of them. The Prime Minister in his Independence day speech spoke about “zero defect, zero effect” policy, referring to industrial effects on the environment (Indian Express 2015). The government promised to amend laws with the introduction of stringent standards to curb pollution and ensure quick clearance of industrial and infrastructure projects.

The government through its environment and forest ministry has taken up several initiatives like:

  • Launching of air pollution index.
  • The announcement of stringent pollution norms for the cement industries.
  • Setting up committees to manage the compensatory afforestation funds that have been lying unused for over a decade.
  • Working on classifying industries based on their potential for pollution hazards.

But most of these initiatives are yet to be implemented and there has been very limited progress in lessening the environmental hazards (Vincent 2014). Especially in the forest areas where potential pollutant industries are destroying the eco-system.

This article deals with the environmental hazards due to coal mining on the Mahan coal block in the forest area of Mahan and the repercussions faced by Greenpeace in their struggle to save the environment.

Environment of Mahan

Mahan in Singrauli district of Madhya Pradesh is one of India’s largest and oldest Sal forests and is home to several rare and endangered species. Lying adjacent to the Sanjay Dubri Tiger Reserve, the forest serves as an important wildlife corridor. The ecosystem comprises 102 migratory and rare species of birds along with tigers, elephants, leopards and sloth bears. Besides, the forest has also served as a source of livelihood (Mahua and Tendu leaves) to the local communities living in and around it for generations.

An emerging problem

The development of a coal mining industry as proposed by Essar and other companies will lead to the destruction of a vast amount of forest land and trees and the industry will be in close proximity to the tiger reserves. As most of the coalfields are present in the forest land, deforestation is a big threat to the wildlife and will imbalance the local ecosystem. As per a report from Hindu a daily newspaper, there are two power plants of 600 MW that operates in the region by drawing coal from the Mahan forest. They illegally discharge a large amount of dyke ash from the combustion of coal. This is a big underlying threat to the biodiversity as it poisons the groundwater table and air (Vincent 2014).

Why is coal so important to India?

India is one of the world’s largest producers of coal. Mining is a significant economic activity in the country adding to its GDP growth. India is largely dependant on coal for the generation of electricity. Although the present installed capacity of power generation in India stood at 210951 MW in December 2012, the demand is expected to rise to 930000 MW by 2030 (Indian Power Sector, n.d.). With the rise in its population, there has been a rise in the demand for power that cannot be fulfilled by its reserves hence India has to import significant quantities of coal. This has led India to become one of the largest importers of coal, after China. As per, Chandrashekhar (2015) of the Hindu Business Line, there has been a considerable rise in the import of coal; from 100 million tons in 2012 to 150 million tons in 2014, which will rise to 190 million tons by 2017. The government reasoned such increase in import due to constraints existing in the domestic production of coal owing to “problems in expanding the capacity arising from difficulties in land acquisition, geo-mining conditions, environment and forest clearance issues and inadequate infrastructure” (Chandrashekhar 2015). Such rise in import of coal will affect the Forex reserve, leading to a rapid depreciation of the value of the Indian rupee, as witnessed during the financial year of 2009-2012 (Read further on “How did the Indian rupee got burnt by the wrath of coal?“). This devaluation of Indian rupee will, in turn, hamper the economic growth of the country.

The act of defiance by the civil society of Mahan

Several village communities along with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have come together to fight for their rights. MahanSangharshSamiti (MSS) is formed by the members of the village community in 2013 in collaboration with Junglistan. This move has been taken to intensify their movement against coal mining through Van Satyagraha, a non-violent occupation of the forest by the villagers. In July 2014, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) nullified the documentary evidence of the villagers’, in order to bypass Gram Sabha (Bavadam 2015; 39).

On 9th April, 2015, the Government of India suspended the Greenpeace’s Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) registration and froze its accounts, citing reasons such as hurting of public and economic interests of the country “in violation of the Section 12(4)(f)(iii) and Section 12(4)(f)(ii) of the FCRA […] amounting to violation of the conditions of grant of registration certificate” (Pandey 2015). This move by the government has been preceded by the incident where Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai was stopped from boarding a flight bound to London. She was supposed to address the British Parliamentarians regarding the threatening effect of the coal mining project and thereby requesting the Essar head office to rethink before progressing with their plans (Pillai 2015).

Economic growth at the cost of environmental degradation

According to MoEFCC, Prakash Javadekar and the Central Ministry, “stringent environmental clearance processes” act as roadblocks and speed breakers in the path of industrial development of the country (Bavadam 2015; 37).

In permeating environmental clearances, the Government has violated the Forest Conservation Act, the Environment Protection Act and the Forest Rights Act (as claimed by the opposition and Greenpeace) by permitting Essar & Hindalco to mine coal in the area.

Former Environment and Forest Minister Veerappa Moily gave clearance to Essar, immediately after assuming power unlike Jairam Ramesh and Jayanti Natarajan who withheld the clearance for a long time. To encourage economic growth in the country the Government believes in the development of infrastructure at the cost of environmental degradation and deforestation (Bavadam 2015; 38).

Saving the environment and checking the potential pollutants is a vital step towards establishing a sustainable economic growth. Industrial development is important for economic development but not at the cost of its environment. The Government should take stringent actions when it comes to making important decisions about forest conservation and should promote a sustainable way of economic development. Germany is a good example that protects its environment by producing clean energy from renewable sources like wind and solar.