Coal has always been a dirty fuel. The last few days have proved that this is true not only in terms of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, but in terms of corruption as well. No reason for surprise; as a natural resource, coal is as much a part of the Great Indian Sale as anything else – but the scale of the coal block allotment scam has shocked even cynical activists. 10.7 lakh crores is the value that the government has literally gifted away to private companies – how many schools, hospitals, rural electrification programmes and more would that buy?
For those interested in the gory details, the draft CAG report is here.
The Comptroller and Auditor General's (CAG) report implicates virtually every major private player, and many minor ones, in standing to benefit unduly from a coal block allocation system that has been neither transparent nor objective, but yet has been allowed to carry on till today, ever since a Secretary in the Ministry of Coal first raised the issue in 2004. Reliance, TATA, Adani, Jindal and a whole of host of other players all find mention in what appears to be, at best, a shocking piece of (mis)governance and at worst, a scam of gargantuan proportions.
The CAG's report is also damning in discussing the undue benefit to Reliance Power resulting from clever manipulations in coal block allotments – read pages 37 to 41 for a master lesson in how our government colludes with private players to maximize profits at the expense of the common taxpayer, all in the name of "developing the country". The CAG pegs the "undue benefit" to Reliance Power at an estimated Rs. 15,849 crore!
The CAG also devotes considerable attention to the delay in receiving forest and environmental clearances. However, it ignores the fact that virtually all proposals receive clearance. Instances of rejection are few and far between, and instances of permanent rejection virtually non-existent. An example is the Mahan coal block in MP's Sidhi district, jointly allocated to Essar and Hindalco.
Mahan, which was allocated in 2006, is one of the scam-tainted coal blocks, allocated to private players in a less than transparent manner. The Forest Advisory Committee has considered and denied forest clearance for the block on no fewer than four occasions, and finally former Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh also stated that he could not clear such good quality forest. Despite this, the Group of Ministers under Pranab Mukherjee, and at the urging of a now beleaguered PMO, has again put pressure on the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to clear the project. Pressure from Essar and Hindalco (part of the Aditya Birla group) has been exerted on the MoEF, through the Prime Minister's Office, in a completely brazen manner, as detailed by former Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh.
Bowing to the pressure, a team from the MoEF made a flying visit to Mahan last week, probably to "generate papers" on the basis of which the project will be cleared, paving the way for these dense forests, an important wildlife corridor and the only source of livelihood for several villages to be razed for the coal beneath them.
Villagers from Amelia, Suhera and Piderwah villages depend on these forests for a much of their livelihood. They have written to the Ministry contending that they have individual and community forest rights over the Mahan area which are yet to be recognized under what is known as the Forest Rights Act, 2006. According to the MoEF's own July 2009 circular, no forest land can be diverted till the processes under the FRA are complete. The MoEF has in the past been lax about implementing the FRA (supposedly one of the UPA government's flagship legislative changes). It remains to be seen how they will react in this case.
In the five years from 2007-2011, 26,000 hectares of forest land have been cleared for coal mining alone. And yet the clamour for more forest land from private industry and the coal behemoth Coal India Limited continues. Forest dependent communities, including some of the poorest and most disadvantaged in India, and rare and endangered wildlife (including the tiger, India's national animal) are mere inconveniences in the regime's rush for more coal.
Ashish Fernandes is Senior Climate Campaigner, Greenpeace.