A central trade union strike by coal sector workers in response to the government’s much-hyped auction of 41 coal blocks in the mineral rich states of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh has just got over.
The move is set to raze hectares of forest and destroy rich flora and fauna in ecologically high-value areas.
Twenty-two of these coal blocks are in densely forested areas, classified as no-go and inviolate by the Forest Survey of India. They include two tiger reserves and a proposed elephant habitat. Tribal communities and gram panchayats in three states have opposed the auction.
The Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra governments have red-flagged the auction in letters to the environment and coal ministers, and the PMO, while the Jharkhand government has moved the Supreme Court.
The decision has surprised environmentalists, as several coal blocks with little or no forest cover were already available.
But it is all part of a new trend, wherein the environment ministry is seen bypassing compulsory clearances and surreptitiously handing over land to big business via 10-minute video-conference sessions held over the pandemic lockdown.
Aside from genuine concerns regarding their own exploitation under suspended labour laws, the move to privatise the coal industry also exposes workers and their families to unconscionable safety risks and health hazards.
Indian coal contains between 30 and 50 per cent fly ash, which results in production of greater quantities of noxious gases, particulate matter and carbon emissions.
In the 1993 amendments to the Coal Mines (Nationalisation) Act, 1973, which first legalised the privatisation of coal blocks in India, only companies showing “coal washing” as end use were allowed captive coal blocks.
But following subsequent tweaks to the law by the Narendra Modi government, coal blocks can now be owned by private enterprises without any prior coal mining experience and any specified end-use.
Also, even though the Modi government had initially been awake to the importance of regulating washeries, which “clean” dirty coal, it was its environment ministry again last month that overturned the previous government’s notification that all thermal power plants need to use coal with less than 34 per cent ash content.
This policy, adopted by the government ostensibly to liberate companies from the responsibility of using clean coal in order to encourage investment, threatens the very lives of the miners and their families. Such flagrant disregard of safeguards and ecology for big money! Is another Chasnala in the offing?...