Fears raised over private coal mining plan

FINANCE minister Manmohan Singh's largesse in the form of a five-year tax holiday to entrepreneurs pro m*oting industries in the northeast is already producing an envirowmen- tal fallout. Eastern Mining Ltd (EML), the country's first private coal-mining company, is to begin large-scale operations in Meghalaya and this could damage further the ecology of a state ravaged by many small coal mines.

EML, promoted by Shillong industrialist Trevor Shefield Bareh, has been marketing coal purchased from local mines since 1991. Its new plan, to acquire mines, process and sell. coal, seems to have escaped the notice of Meghalaya officials. EML reportedly has already secured export orders for 50,000 tonnes of coal.

Concerned at the environmental implications of the Rs 17-crore EML project, questions were raised in the Lok Sabha, but state officials replied they had not received any intimation from EML of its forthcoming operations. This, despite EML advertisements that brought in applications for Rs 84 crore worth of shares when it entered the market to raise Rs 7 crore.

Union coal-ministry officials, however, welcome the entry of private firms into the cash-strapped coal industry. One of them explained, "Budgetary support from the Union government for the public-sector coal industry has dropped from 90 per cent in 1980 to less than 20 per cent in 1990."
Bureaucratic confusion Adding confusion to the ramification of the EML project are Meghalaya's peculiar land laws and ambiguity regarding the procedures for licences, leases and clearances for coal.mining. But state minister for mining P K Reswai insists, "There is no confusion at all. Companies wanting to mine here have to obtain a lease for acquiring land" and mining department officials maintain EML has not applied for a lease. Similarly, state environment secretary Surajit Mitra. says clearances are mandatory, but department officials say EML has not filed a clearance application either. State pollution control officials, however, disclosed EML has taken clearance forms but has yet to submit them.

EML director M S Jayaram contended in Shillong his company does not require either a mining lease or a licence and its application for environment clearance was submitted to the state pollution control board on December 31, 1992. Dismissing Than raised by local environmentalists, he said, "Coal mining is environmentally less degrading than the cement and calcinate factories operating in the state."

Meghalaya's coal reserves of 576 million tonnes form 59 per cent Of the total reserv in the northeast. Strangely, mininegsis a cottage industry in the state and anyone can I minerals on land they own'. In western Meghalaya, agriculture and coal mining are the major sources of livelihood and there are about Boo small mines yielding high-quality coal.

Both land regulations and attempts to increase royalties in Meghalaya are invariably resisted and environmental laws rarely qnforced. The result is mindless pree-felling and mining, which threaten agricultural land and reserve forests.

Former Meghalaya legislator Onwardswell Nongtdu says coal miners "play havoc with the environ ment, destroying paddy-fields, forests and even backyards of homes". Other environmentalists say streams and rivers in mining are too contaminated for consumption. Even P A Sangma, a former Union minister for coal, who is from Meghalaya, concedes mining techniques in his state are unscientific and harmful to the environment. And, G G Swell, a Rajya Sabha member from Meghalaya, says, "Strip mining of coal has caused serious damage. About 10,000 trucks ply the Shillong- Guwahati highway, causing congestion, pollution and environmental degradation."

Nevertheless, Union coal ministry officials insist private companies will rationalise coal-mining in the state.

The environmental dangers of mining in Meghalaya have been established in a study by the geology department of the North Eastern Hill University in Shillong. But the findings are not acceptable to individuals and corporations who stand to benefit from coal mining. The glitter of profits from black diamond is only a dull shine on environmental fears.