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Environmental Planning For Coal Mining

District collectors get swayed to push through and expedite major investments. They should, instead, be held squarely accountable for the compliance of all environment-related planning so that the surrounding human population remains unaffected, healthy and safe.

Photo Credit : Reuters

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Even in an era of heightened sensitivity towards climate change, our delicate energy equation necessitates the continuance of coal mining. The recent call by the chief of mining conglomerate Vedanta that only large firms with proven track records of developing big mines be allowed to commercially mine coal, has to be viewed in perspective. In fact, the opening of FDI in coal mining should also lead to heightened responsibility in coal mine development.

Perhaps, the biggest challenge to the environment comes when large coal-mining projects displace hundreds of habitations, pollute the environment and natural resources, and lead to unplanned and chaotic development. Even where large public sector companies had operated in the past, e.g. in Korba (once described as the gas-chamber of India), Talcher, Bokaro, Singareni, Singrauli etc., coal projects have led to mushrooming of slums, encroachments, untreated ash ponds and haphazard planning. Matters pertaining to tribal rehabilitation, public security, crime, civic discipline, air and water pollution, have left much to be desired. Mining cities, therefore, rate poorly on any social index.

Amendments in law allowed private companies to mine coal in India. Only suitably sensitised companies with adequate experience, skill-sets and resources can do justice to the concession. All others would only be rent-seekers and ignore the overall development requirements.

Firstly, any coal mine requires large-scale acquisition of land  the government can stipulate the basic norms for rehabilitation of those displaced, but it is ultimately left to the mining concessionaire to provide wholesome succour to those displaced, most of whom are usually tribals. Coal mining areas need to be planned properly, because each mine leads to the creation of a new township, which finally settles down into a permanent one, even beyond the age of the mine.

Mining areas must be planned in advance, with delineation of physical and social infrastructure – roads, sewerage facilities, drinking water arrangements and filtration facilities, roads, parks, and other social amenities like schools, colleges and recreational facilities. Systems will have to be developed for giving employment to those who are displaced and taking care of their health and drinking water. The Gram Sabha has to be actively involved and guided in a fair and paternalistic manner.

A comprehensive spatial plan for infrastructure development and a team capable of ensuring planned development should be the sine qua non for a company  being technically qualified for bidding for a coal mine. Pre-qualification of  this kind is no less important than economic parameters.

Safety, especially of workers, is a major issue. Healthy communication amongst all stakeholders about social externalities is a must for the success of a mining project. The EPA in the USA often invokes the Clean Water Act to prohibit mining where it is apprehended that the slurry and other effluents will affect the water. There have been instances of mercury creeping into the water and contaminating it and working its way into the food chain. Dredging has often caused rivers to silt up. In the case of the Spruce Mine in the US, environmentalists have sought no-go buffer zones near rivers.

District collectors get swayed to push through and expedite major investments. They should, instead, be held squarely accountable for the compliance of all environment-related planning so that the surrounding human population remains unaffected, healthy and safe.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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Raghav Chandra

The author is Former Chairman, NHAI

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