MoEF's delays well-known, but Coal India also to blame
If the environment ministry has, as minister Jayanthi Natarajan claims in her letter to the Prime Minister, given environment clearances to 210,000 MW of power capacity and 583 million tonnes of coal production per year—this means both power and coal production can double—the question to ask is why this coal is not being mined. Natarajan’s data, based on a study by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), after all, is dramatically different from the figures being put out by industry or even by other arms of the government such as the finance or the roads ministries. Indeed, it was because these figures showed a large number of projects being stuck at the environment ministry level primarily—though other ministry clearances are also a hindrance—that the finance ministry proposed the National Investment Board (NIB) which could, if need be, overrule line ministries. Turns out, Natarajan isn’t completely wrong, but what’s also true is the data she has put out looks somewhat selective.
So, while Natarajan’s note talks of granting environmental clearance to 181 coal mines with a combined capacity of 583 million tonnes per annum, the very next sentence talks of giving forest clearances for 113 coal mines—in other words, around 40% of mines are being put on hold by another arm of the environment ministry; Natarajan does not give data for the capacity of these 113 coal mines either. A perusal of the coal ministry’s notes for the September review of Coal India projects corroborates this since every second project cites delays in forest clearances as the main reason for the delay. Similarly, the environment ministry withdrawing the forest clearance for Vedanta’s bauxite mines coincided with the day Rahul Gandhi landed up there to woo the tribals, saying he was there to protect their mountain goddess. In the case of the Posco project, it had to be embarrassing for the ministry to admit it had got things wrong when one of the reasons cited for not giving clearance was that the company hadn’t examined the demands of the STs whom the project would displace—turns out the area is not even home to tribals. In Lavasa, similarly, with the green cover rising dramatically after the hill-town began construction, it’s difficult to see why environment clearances have been held back.
It is, of course, unfair to blame only the environment ministry for delays. The R706 crore Magadh Expansion coal project, for instance, talks of ‘delay in possession of acquired land’; the R813 crore Piparwar Expansion talks of ‘land acquisition problems & delay in construction of Railway siding’. The most amazing is the R1,144 crore Amlohri Expansion project of Coal India where the reason for the delay is the fact that the bid for 38 190-tonne dumpers had to be retendered. Interestingly, a CMIE analysis of the top 20 projects shelved during 2011-12 cites inability to buy land as the biggest reason for delays. Which means that, when the NIB is finally set up, it’s going to have its work cut out as it won’t be dealing with just the environment ministry’s delays.