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New Delhi: Although India is reeling under a severe drought, the central government is willing to overlook a proposed policy that is meant to protect forests, wildlife and fresh water sources, the environmental campaign group Greenpeace said in a study released on Thursday.

Greenpeace India said information accessed by it through the Right to Information (RTI) Act from the union environment ministry shows that as many as, “417 out of 825 current and future coal blocks should be categorised as ‘inviolate’ areas as per hydrological parameters".

According to Greenpeace, the information reveals that in 2015 the Forest Survey of India (FSI) assessed 825 coal blocks based on the draft parameters for identification of inviolate forest areas. If hydrological parameters are applied a whopping 50.5% of the coal blocks are rendered ‘partially inviolate’, Greenpeace said.

The violate-inviolate forest policy is yet to be formally adopted but is meant to inform decisions on permitting economic activity in forested areas.

It will declare certain dense forest areas as out of bounds for activities like mining. The policy was first mooted during former environment minister Jairam Ramesh’s tenure as “go-no go" but was dropped in 2011-12. It was brought back in form of violate-inviolate in 2012 but the policy is yet to see light of the day despite several promises by environment minister Prakash Javadekar.

“It’s been close to four years since the exercise to identify inviolate areas started and the environment ministry is still dragging its feet on this policy while the coal ministry is going ahead with auctioning and allotting these precious forest areas," said Nandikesh Sivalingam, senior campaigner with the Greenpeace India.

“The ministry’s silence gives tacit go-ahead to the government’s coal-dependent energy policy. In effect, it allows the greed for coal to take precedence over everything else, including the inevitable consequence of coal mining destroying sensitive forest areas and freshwater sources in our drought-afflicted country," he added.

He said mining in forests even beyond 250 metres of a river banks often has a dramatic detrimental impact on the catchment, including water pollution, erosion and worsening water scarcity during the dry season.

The environment ministry has kept the final call on the violate-inviolate policy pending and is instead deciding on diversion of forest areas on a case-by-case basis.

A high-level committee formed by the environment ministry to review India’s green laws in its report in 2014 also called for keeping certain biodiversity-rich dense forests out of bounds for any activity like mining or building dams.

Apart from the hydrological parameters, the data accessed by Greenpeace through RTI also shows that currently the number of inviolate coal blocks stands at a mere 49 as per four parameters -- forest cover, forest type, biological richness and landscape integrity.

The environmental NGO alleged that media reports and coal auction show that even coal blocks listed as inviolate are being auctioned to mining companies.

It demanded that the government fix a deadline to finalise, publicise and enforce the violate-inviolate policy. It also demanded that all concerned stakeholders—including affected forest communities—are consulted before forest land is considered for mining.

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