July 22, 2020

Massive commercial coal mining may spell socio-ecological disaster for India

Over 40,000 trees were felled in December 2019 to promote a coal mine project in Odisha's Talabira forest. Photograph © Basudev Mahapatra

Temperature rise, climate change, environmental degradation and their collective link with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic being at the centre of discussion world over, India’s decision to auction at least 40 coal blocks from the states of Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra for commercial opencast mining is not only surprising but also against its commitments at global forums about environmental protection. From 41 coal blocks notified earlier, Maharashtra’s Bander coal block has been dropped off the list probably because the mineral block is located in the Eco-Sensitive Area (ESA) surrounding Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve.

The decision that came during the pandemic was actually planned in February 2018 with the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs giving its approval for auction and commercial mining of the coal blocks by private players.

Being the dominant fuel contributing to more than half of the total energy productions in India, coal has remained central to India’s energy aspirations. However, coal mining initiatives have often ignored important issues related to public health and livelihood of affected communities, and the environmental interests.

In December 2019, over 40,000 matured trees were felled in Odisha’s Talabira forest to promote an opencast coal mining project of the government-owned NLC (Neyveli Lignite Corporation Limited). Talabira (Odisha) Mining Pvt Ltd (TOMPL), a subsidiary of industrial group Adani Enterprises Limited, being the operator on behalf of NLC, the proposed coal mine will lead to felling of 130,721 trees distributed across 1,038.187 hectares (10.38 sq km) of forest land.

Fresh boost to coal mining

While launching the online auction process, on June 18, 2020, for the newly notified blocks, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi termed it an essential step to make the country self-reliant with regard to energy production and to overcome the economic backlash unleashed by the pandemic. Apart from attracting investment, the move would help regional development and create employment opportunities for job seeking youth of the mineral bearing districts, the prime minister highlighted.

Going by the history of mining in India, areas surrounding operational mines are usually backward with most of the local population living in a state of acute poverty. Mineral rich areas being hilly and forested regions mostly inhabited by indigenous communities, mining operations lead to displacement of local people from their original habitations and primary sources of livelihood such as forest and farmland. According to reports, the coal blocks mapped for auction may displace about 30,000 families, with a population roughly over 150,000, if all of the selected blocks are auctioned and become operational for commercial coal mining.

With regard to employment, mining activities may open up some opportunities for the local youth to work as wage based labourers. But thousands of farmers who lose their land to mining projects become unemployed as well. In Angul district of Odisha, where eight coal blocks have been selected for auction, at least 10,000 families, mostly farmers, will face displacement and lose their lands thus jobs if mining takes place, Sankar Prasad Pani, an environmental lawyer, said. Other than the farmers, people who depend on local forests and biodiversity for their livelihood are also going to become jobless due to loss of both forest and biodiversity to mining and energy aspirations of India, he added.

Ignoring environment

Many of the coal blocks in the list for auction are located in biodiversity-rich forest areas such as those in Chhattisgarh’s Hasdeo Arand, which is a contiguous stretch of dense forest spanning over 170,000 hectares. Environmental experts believe that mining may lead to felling of 2.5-3.0 million trees while polluting the Hasdeo River. Mining activities would result in fragmentation of this forest known to be a wildlife habitat and part of an elephant corridor.

Other than Chhattisgarh, forest land within the limits of several coal blocks in Jharkhand is about 50 percent or more, and 80 percent of Gotitoria East coal block of Madhya Pradesh is forest that acts as drainage for Sitarewa River. The list carries many such coal blocks where mining will lead to massive deforestation.

Although fragmentation of forests serving as wildlife habitats exacerbates human-wildlife conflict and results in loss of wildlife, the recent decision from the Indian government promoting commercial coal mining seems to have ignored these issues and possibilities of loss of forest, biodiversity and wildlife.

Effects of opencast mining on other ecological resources like soil and water are also a matter of serious concern. Surface mining of coal leads to soil erosion, loss of soil fertility, acidification of soil and water, contamination of water and the food chain. Coal extraction also disturbs the water table and pollutes the aquifers due to mineral leaching.

As mine waters have a tendency, even with a neutral or alkaline nature, to dissolve potential toxic elements (PTEs), active mining areas have a higher concentration of PTEs in the water posing serious threats to all local life systems.

Public health risks

Opencast mining of coal and several other minerals lead to number of health hazards. People working in mines and living around opencast mines are at a higher risk of respiratory diseases. According to centers for disease control and prevention, pneumoconioses being one of the major health risks, two main types of pneumoconioses that affect miners are coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP), commonly called black lung, and silicosis, which cannot be cured through medical treatment but can only be prevented by controlling respirable dust exposure.

Silicosis being one of the major health hazards faced by miners of India, it silently kills thousands of workers before they reach the age of 40. Reports claim that 10 million miners working in the sector are exposed to silica dust while 50 per cent of Indian miners are found to be suffering from silicosis in any given age group. Coal miners are also at risk for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), dust-related diffuse fibrosis (DDF) and chronic airways diseases including emphysema and chronic bronchitis. In 1999, the Indian Council of Medical Research reported that around 3.0 million workers are at high risk of exposure to silica; of these, 1.7 million work in mining or quarrying activities.

The health risks are not only from air pollution but also from water contaminated by sulfate ions and toxic heavy metals.

With the coal reaching their destinations to be fired, mostly at thermal power plants, the health risks multiply as such plants emit sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx­), particulate matter (PM), carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the atmosphere. The PM in the flue gas also contains high concentrations of heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, cadmium, mercury, copper and zinc. Chronic and acute exposure to these pollutants lead to  respiratory illnesses, compromised immune systems, cardiovascular conditions, cancer and even premature death. While the impact of the emissions is felt within 200 km of the power plants, under windy conditions the influence can be tracked to distances as far as 400 km from the source region.

Carbon dioxide, which is a greenhouse gas, is a cause of global warming.

Towards the worse

Odisha’s two districts, Angul and Jharsuguda, where the nine coal blocks from the state marked for auctioning are located, have been identified by the central pollution control board (CPCB) of India as critically polluted districts because of environmental degradation due to massive coal mining and release of toxic effluents from thermal power plants and mineral based industries. Temperature in both the districts normally touches its peak during summer in these two districts. While almost similar is the situation in most of the districts known for coal mining and thermal power plants, further coal mining at commercial scale will only take the environment and climate towards their worse in these mineral bearing districts.

The impact of mining, as planned by the Indian government under prime minister Modi, will not be limited to environmental pollution but it will also exacerbate temperature rise and climate change. Gradually, over time, temperature and climate change will affect the neghbouring forest, ecosystems and biodiversity threatening their very existence. Such effects are already being observed in many forests and wildlife habitats in the vicinity of mining areas and mineral based industrial clusters of India.

In fact, the economic benefits arising from coal mining are very less when compared to the losses incurred to the nature and ecosystems. Affected community and environment always face injustice due to gross, allegedly intentional, negligence by mining enterprises, the government and its regulating bodies. Environmental impact studies conducted before implementation of mining projects either ignore or deliberately do not take into account the value of ecosystem services. Nor do the studies value forest and biodiversity as a socio-cultural property of local communities.

The massive ecological damage, displacement and unemployment to be caused by mining projects and their socio-cultural impacts on the local communities, mostly indigenous and agrarian, in the consequent scenario are never highlighted while pushing or introducing such ideas.

This time too, as civil society members and environmental activists from all affected states allege, the Indian government has imposed its decision to auction coal blocks for commercial opencast mining without sufficiently informing people on the need and possible impacts of coal mining in their respective areas.

Failing on commitments

Stating that such a decision would spell ‘triple disaster,’ former environment and forest minister Jairam Ramesh wrote in a letter to the current minister of environment and forest, Prakash Javadekar, that the proposed mining and allied activities would impose heavy environmental cost, lead to loss of very dense forest cover that no compensatory afforestation can compensate, and severely affect public health. Ramesh also questioned the government if such a decision to open up coal blocks in very dense forest areas for mining reflects India’s commitment to fight global warming and climate change.

The Paris agreement of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), to which India happens to be a party, urges all parties to act in a manner that can hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.

Now the question remains, will it be possible for India to meet the targets defined in the Paris Agreement at national level by destroying forest and other ecological resources, and by promoting coal mining and thermal power production on such a massive scale?

Rampant coal mining and thermal power production may also hinder India from achieving many of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) such as ending poverty (SDG 1) and hunger (SDG 2), ensuring healthy lives (SDG 3), availability and sustainable management of water (SDG 6), inclusive and sustainable economic growth (SDG 8), combating climate change and its impacts (SDG 13) among others. Even the government may fail to achieve some of the SDGs at local, regional and national levels.

Although energy is an essential part of life, focus on the method of producing energy needs a shift. No doubt, renewable energy sector of India is experiencing growth in terms of investment and production capacity. It, however, needs more attention and actions at national as well as regional levels to promote and enhance clean energy production. In order to bring sustainable development and move towards a greener future, production and consumption of clean energy need to be brought to the centre stage of development planning.

Such efforts have become indispensable with environmental protection and biodiversity conservation bearing enormous importance for sustenance of mankind and the earth. They have become more relevant at this moment as the pandemic of COVID-19 has terrified the world sensitizing all of us on the importance of forest, natural habitats, ecosystems and biodiversity with regard to human and overall planetary health. No country at this point of time can afford to and should promote production of coal and thermal power at such huge socio-ecological cost. Keeping this in view, India needs to reconsider its decision of commercial coal mining to safeguard the best interests of the country, its people and overall environment.

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