New Delhi: The ministry of environment and forests, or MoEF, has refuted the coal ministry’s recent criticism that several mining and power projects are delayed due to the long wait for forest clearances.
MoEF has said “shoddy” environmental impact assessment, or EIA, reports have resulted in the delays.
Power plans: Labourers load coal on to trucks on the outskirts of Jammu. India plans to add 78,577MW power generation capacity by 2012. Of this, around 46,600MW is expected to come from coal-based projects.
It also rejected the coal ministry’s proposal of a model EIA that could be valid for all coal projects.
“The coal ministry and most project developers treat these (EIA reports) as mere formality... No project has been kept pending during the past three-four years for want of forestry clearance,” MoEF told the coal ministry at a meeting held on 21 April.
Coal secretary H.C. Gupta, while admitting to Mint that there are inadequacies in the filing of EIA reports, said, “they (the inadequacies) are not universal.”
The EIA report for a coal project is prepared by state-owned Coal India Ltd’s unit Central Mine Planning and Design Institute Ltd, along with other subsidiaries of the parent company.
All coal project proposals are first submitted to the committee on coal mining projects, after which the terms of reference, or ToRs, of the study are given to the developer. Based on ToRs, an EIA study is the conducted. Following that, a public hearing is conducted by concerned state governments. After this, the EIA report, along with the minutes of the public hearing, is submitted to the MoEF by the state government. Based on these reports, MoEF awards final clearance.
A senior Coal India official, who did not want to be identified, said MoEF’s charges weren’t off the mark. “Even we are not prepared and geared up for coal mining in our blocks,” the official said.
Around 67% of India’s power production capacity is based on coal. The power sector currently needs around 390 million tonnes (mt) of coal every year. Although 78% of the coal produced in the country is used to generate power, projected supply falls well short of demand. The country currently imports around 40 mt of coal.
Growth in coal production has dropped from a high of 6.2% between April and December 2006 to 4.9% in the same period in 2007, according to India’s economic survey for 2007-08. The country has an installed power generation capacity of 143,000MW and plans to add 78,577MW by 2012. Of this, around 46,600MW is expected to come from coal-based projects.
“Environmental concerns in coal mining are likely to gain larger mind share. It may be good for the mining companies to give due consideration to environmental risk mitigations in view of sustainability of their businesses,” said Dipesh Dipu, principal consultant of mining at audit and consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, or PwC.
According to the minutes of the April meeting, examined by Mint, the proposal for the format of a model EIA for all coal projects was struck down by MoEF, which said it is just not possible, considering the vast variety of projects.
“The MoEF feels every project has an unique environment plan. We had proposed standard ToRs in the April meeting to shorten the timeframe in awarding these clearances,” coal secretary Gupta said. “We have to respect their view as they are the custodians of environment and forests in the country.”
MoEF members in the joint committee declined to comment.
The meeting of coal and environment ministries are hosted by the 15-member expert appraisal committee on thermal projects for environmental clearances, which falls under MoEF and looks into EIA reports and the proposal to manage environmental effects.
Opposing the idea of standard ToRs, an appraisal committee statement said, “Just like every mining project needs its project feasibility report, each project also needs an environmental assessment and management plan...”
The committee also said most of the EIA reports submitted to MoEF are far from satisfactory. “For example, even fundamental issues such as maps of the study area, map of the core zone/buffer zone and site specific features including topography, modifications in the natural drainage, changes in land use, are not shown and the features explained properly, on the basis of which ToR is specified,” the committee said.
“The process of environment clearances and approvals need to be objective, transparent and predictable in assessment, which will help the mining companies to better prepare their cases and hence, be responsible for their own applications,” said PwC’s Dipu.
Another crucial issue, raised by MoEF committee in April, was that of applications for ToRs being submitted for the same project every few months for frequent upgrading of a mine’s capacity.
In an earlier meeting of the two ministries in February, it was decided that from then on, EIA reports would be prepared on the highest achievable production of the mine. However, no such application has been received until now, the MoEF committee said.
While an environmental activist said on condition of anonymity that an overburdened expert group poses a problem, Gupta said that “EIA studies can be outsourced and this is not a cause for concern.”