New Delhi: The environment ministry is diluting its rules governing coal mining projects located on lands adjoining forests in a move that’s likely to run into resistance from green activists.

At present, coal mining in blocks, which has both forest and non-forest area, can proceed only after they receive clearance for non-forest as well as forest areas. Now, the environment ministry has said that mining can go ahead in non-forest area even if the final clearance for the forest area has not been accorded.

The move by the Prakash Javadekar-led Union ministry of environment, forests and climate change (MoEFCC) is an effort to boost coal production by reducing red tape.

However, the move could invite fresh criticism, especially from activists who have been arguing that this is among several decisions the MoEFCC has taken to dilute green clearances.

“As per the guidelines under the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980 issued by MoEFCC, if a project involves forest as well as non-forest land, work should not be started on non-forest land till approval of the Central government for release of forest land under the FC Act has been given. MoEFCC has received representations to amend the said guidelines to permit commencement of mining in non-forest areas in the coal blocks having both forest and non-forest land," said an environment ministry letter sent last week to all state governments.

“The state government, if it so desires, may execute a separate mining lease for a whole or part of non-forest land falling in mining lease, once Stage-I approval under FC Act 1980 for the entire forest land falling in such mining lease is obtained," the letter said, a copy of which has been reviewed by Mint.

The ministry, however, warned that the state governments in such cases shall take all measures to ensure that no violations of the FC Act 1980 occurs on the forest land.

Stage I of forest clearance deals with MoEFCC agreeing or rejecting a project and charging money. If a project is accepted, then the ministry stipulates conditions like compensation for afforestation in lieu of forest being used for non-forest purpose. But no land transfer takes place in Stage I.

Forest land is only given in Stage II once all conditions including settling rights of forest dwellers are met by the project developers. However, the process between two stages takes time and thus results in projects getting delayed.

Thus the ministry’s directive, in simple words, would delink need of forest clearance for starting work in non-forest area. As a result coal projects would be able to take off faster and production will start sooner.

India plans to mine 1.5 billion tonnes of coal by 2020. Of this, 1 billion tonnes is from Coal India Ltd and 500 million tonnes from other sources. The fuel will play an important part, given that around 280 million Indians still do not have access to electricity.

A senior environment ministry official, who did not wish to be identified, said, “the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) is in the loop regarding the whole issue".

“Every single change is in knowledge of designated PMO officials. The close co-ordination between environment and coal ministries is also a result of PM’s directive to key sectors to work in close coordination," the MoEFCC official added.

The environment ministry’s decision, however, hasn’t found favour with environmentalists. They point out that giving the go ahead to a mining lease in a non-forest area even as stage-II clearance is pending may serve as a fait accompli.

“This completely defeats the entire purpose of regulation and precautionary approach under the FC Act. Both forest and non-forest land are part of the complete project. So this decision doesn’t make sense as project developers will think that transfer of forest land is inevitable," said Kanchi Kohli, legal research director at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR)-Namati Environmental Justice Program.

“It basically results in huge pressure on government, environment ministry and advisory bodies because then the issue of a project developer making huge investment in non-forest area would arise," Kohli said.

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