If you believe the financial press, one of the biggest environmental stories this past year has been the question of "go" and "no go" areas for coal mining. It looks like a typical clash between the "green lobby" represented by the Environment Ministry (supported by environmental NGOs) and the so-called "development lobby" (everyone from the PMO to Montek Singh Ahluwalia) - in which the development lobby is now winning.
So far, so familiar. But is this purely a case of a good plan being defeated by stonewalling and opposition? With a close look, the story becomes more murky.
The go - no go plan was first announced back in June 2009. Certain facts spring out from the official statement jointly released by the two Ministries that day. First, the purpose of the exercise was "the need for increasing coal production in a sustainable manner"; the statement closed by saying "Both the Ministers have agreed to continue this dialogue on a regular basis to expedite clearances of coal projects aimed at achieving a production level of 1.7-2.00 billion tonne of coal production by 2030." In keeping with this, the measures announced in the statement also included a Coal Ministry representative on the Expert Appraisal Committee for environment clearances - which would be a direct conflict of interest - as well as a review of penalties for violations and payment of net present value for diverted forest land. The Coal Ministry was also to supply digitized maps of coal fields for the purpose of the go - no go classification, which was to be done on the basis of forest cover.
Thus, even at the start, the purpose of the initiative was to speed up clearances for coal mining. This was along expected lines; industry and the business media have spent years crying themselves hoarse about the supposed arbitrariness and delays from environmental clearances. Hence this move to "clarify" boundaries and make decision-making transparent.
Except that what industry says isn't true. As revealed by a now famous RTI application by Ritwick Dutta in January, between August 2009 and July 2010 the Environment Ministry decided a total of 541 applications, of which it rejected precisely six - an acceptance rate of 99%. Not a single coal mining application was rejected; all 31 that were decided were approved. While this concerned environment clearances, there is no reason to believe the situation in forest clearances is particularly different, and it gives the lie to the claim that the clearance process is an obstacle to projects. As for delays, the Ministry pointed out in a response to the Coal Ministry that the two main reasons for delay in forest clearances are bad proposals from applicants and failure of State governments to submit their reports. Coal India Limited, the supposed driving force behind this controversy, can hardly be unaware of these facts.
So what is all the fuss about? Why did the Coal Ministry enter into this, and why is it making a ruckus now? Is it a fear that rejections will increase in future?
That seems correct, until we realise that the Environment Ministry itself is not doing what it says it is doing. First, an environmental clearance rate of 99% indicates that the Ministry - much rhetoric and a few high profile cases notwithstanding - is not enforcing existing regulations at all. Then there's the fact that - as admitted in its official reply quoted above - the Ministry has no intention of making the "no go" areas binding by amending the Forest (Conservation) Rules or issuing orders to this effect. Therefore they will just be a 'guideline', to which exceptions can and will be made. We have one such "exception" already - the grant of final forest clearance to SAIL's Chiria mines in Jharkhand's Saranda forests, overriding even a rare negative recommendation from the Forest Advisory Committee. While the list of "no go" blocks is not public, it would almost certainly include Saranda; but the Ministry's order on Chiria does not even mention no go areas.
Moreover, the no go classification does not actually achieve either of the two main goals often cited for it - saving some of the country's "best forests" and protecting vulnerable tribals and forest dwellers. Satellite images of forest cover density are an extraordinarily poor way of assessing ecological significance. Under this system, monocultural plantations would rank higher than grasslands or open jungle that may be far more ecologically important. In fact, the entire purpose of the forest clearance process is to require the State and Central governments to assess the ecological importance of a forest area through a variety of measurements - site inspection reports, estimates of impact on wildlife, nature of use of the forest area, etc. This of course is not being done properly. To impose a go - no go classification, with the explicit purpose of expediting clearances, would result in enormous pressure to automatically approve everything in the ever-expanding "go" areas (while not making rejection binding in the "no go" areas). It would further undercut the already moribund clearance process; and this after all is exactly what the industry lobby wanted, and the reason for the classification in the first place.
As for protecting tribals and forest dwellers, there is already a legal mechanism for doing so - the Forest Rights Act. But the Ministry has acted as if that law does not exist, happily diverting huge areas of forest land for projects in total violation of it. After a year and a half of protests and agitations, it finally issued an order in July 2009 requiring compliance with the FRA prior to diversion - but then ignored its own order, which, as per public information, has not been complied with in a single case to date. In the one case where its violation became a matter of public debate - the POSCO project - the Ministry upheld the clearance, ignoring the law and its own enquiry committees. Will a "no go" guideline achieve what a law has not?
In short, this 'battle' does not seem to be about what either side says it is about. Why then is it happening? The reason has to be sought deeper, in a style of politics and policymaking that has been a specialty of the UPA government. This is the generation of artificial controversies in order to deflect attention from what is actually sought to be done.
Thus, from the start, the aim of the Coal Ministry was to undercut the clearance system. Perhaps they expected a smaller area to be declared "no go", but that is not really relevant; once the classification had been made, it presented a golden opportunity to create a publicity stir and portray the forest clearance process itself as a huge obstacle to "investment" and "growth" (which it certainly is not at present). "No go" becomes a shield for attacking the institution itself. Thus, in its draft Cabinet note, the Coal Ministry did not just call for abolition of "no go"; it said that coal mining should simply be exempted from forest clearances. When the GoM was set up in January to look at the issue, the "issues for consideration" before the Group did not even mention the go - no go issue; instead they talked of a sweeping review of the entire clearance process, stating that the GoM would look at "efficacy and legality of existing forest clearance norms and procedures." Thus, under the cover of a debate over a side issue, more drastic changes can be pushed through, and coal mining can be protected against the future possibility of actual enforcement of regulations.
This is precisely what seems to be happening. On April 8th, at the latest GoM meeting, the Environment Ministry reportedly proposed that the Forest Advisory Committee would first attempt a "compromise" in case of rejecting any coal mining project; and otherwise the matter would be brought to Cabinet. This is a novel innovation, which some might see as a clever move to avoid responsibility for rejecting projects; but as the Ministry is approving 99% of them anyway, and since Cabinet cannot be expected to consider large numbers of project proposals, such a procedure essentially amounts to saying that rejections should be reduced even further. Having started with "no go", we are fast reaching "all go."
The moral of the story is that we should be suspicious of tales of "good guys" and "bad guys" battling it out over policy. Sometimes the battle is actually about something else entirely. By disproportionately pumping up small moves and sidestepping the real issues, the high voltage rhetoric of the Environment Ministry makes such game-playing easy. Whether this is done intentionally or not is irrelevant, as the result is the same. The question is whether those of us involved in these issues should allow ourselves to be dragged into these "controversies"; or if we should focus on exposing these gambits and fighting the more fundamental problems.