Centre may acquire land for mining in protected area

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New Delhi: The coal ministry plans to acquire 1,760 hectares of land in Surguja, Chhattisgarh, for mining, 98% of which is protected forest area, according to a notice by the ministry published in a Raipur-based newspaper on October 15.

The ministry plans to acquire the land under sub-section (1) of section 7 of the Coal Bearing Areas (Acquisition and Development) Act, which allows the central government, if it is satisfied that coal is extractable from the whole or part of a tract of land, to acquire it for mining within two years of notifying that it intends to prospect for coal in the area.

The notice states that the notification intending to acquire the land was issued on May 11, 2020 following which some corrections had been made in the area to be acquired, which is being published as a notice in the newspaper, Daily Chhattisgarh.

The Supreme Court on September 30 had observed that if an area falls in an eco-sensitive zone, neither the Centre nor the state government will have the right to mine it.

The apex court made this observation on a plea by the Jharkhand government challenging the Centre’s decision to auction coal blocks for commercial mining. A bench headed by Chief Justice of India SA Bobde had asked the Centre to file an affidavit on whether the coal blocks being auctioned are in eco-sensitive zones or not.

Kente extension, the coal block in question, is in the Hasdeo-Arand coalfield and has total coal resources estimated at 200 million tonnes, according to the coal ministry.

“There should be no mining in Hasdeo Arand because it is a contiguous stretch of very dense forests. Why is the Centre then planning to acquire this land? More importantly, the state government should have conducted gram sabhas and sought the people’s opinion before taking any decision on mining in dense forests. It can devastate the lives of local people,” said Alok Shukla, convenor of the the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan.

Hasdeo Arand is one of the largest contiguous stretches of very dense forest in central India spanning 170,000 hectares and has 22 coal blocks. In 2009, the environment ministry had categorised Hasdeo Arand to be a “No-Go” zone for mining because of its rich forest cover, but opened it again to mining because the policy hadn’t been finalized.

“No one can mine coal without an environmental clearance and forest clearance. The specifics of this case would be known to Coal India Limited,” said a senior coal ministry official, responding to a query from HT’s on why land with dense forest cover was being acquired for mining.

Following resistance by the Chhattisgarh government, Pralhad Joshi, Union minister for coal and mines, had accepted a proposal by the Chhattisgarh government to exclude five coal blocks in Hasdeo Arand which were among 41 coal mines being auctioned.

Those excluded from the auction include Morga -2, Morga (south), Madanpur (north), Shyang, and Fathehpur (east).

“It appears from the notice in the newspaper that their gazette notification was issued on May 11 but was not put in public domain. Neither us nor villagers are aware of the development. It is only when this notice was seen in a much less circulated newspaper published on October 15 that some of us got to know that the coal ministry is in the process of acquiring this land,” said Sudiep Shrivastava, a Chhattisgarh-based environmental lawyer.

“This is in complete violation of the Supreme Court’s recent observations on eco-sensitive areas. This area has very high crown density. It’s also the catchment of Hasdeo river. The Centre can acquire land for itself under the Coal Bearing Areas Act, but not for a state PSU which has a mine developer and operator (MDO) agreement with a private company,” said Sudiep Shrivastava, a Chhattisgarh-based environmental lawyer.

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