India coal shortage spurs larger debate

September 15, 2011

The forest provides Ran Singh Marpachi with the betel leaves he sells in the market, as well as the food and medicinal plants his family has depended on for generations. But officials say the coal fields underneath the lush, green trees could bring jobs and electricity to struggling farmers in the area.

“Will the rains stop? Will the bear and the birds flee when the trees are cut?” said Marpachi, 44, who lives in a forest-hugging village in the central state of Chhattisgarh. “But then, we also hear this coal will run big factories, and our homes will no longer be poor and starved for electricity.”

Marpachi’s concerns echo a larger debate in India as environmental awareness and the nation’s appetite for energy rise. The tussle between the two forces is a sign of the kind of tightrope act the government faces as it tries to guide this emerging economy through a key moment of its transition.

As a power crisis looms, both sides have focused on coal, the source of about 70 percent of India’s power supply. This year, environmental groups applauded the Environment and Forests Ministry when it declared 203 coal fields off-limits because they are in heavily forested areas. But many officials opposed the decision, saying India desperately needs energy to fuel its industrial growth.

Now businesses fear a coal shortage. India hoped to produce 660 million tons of coal this year, but officials say it is likely to fall short of that target by 139 million tons because of new regulations and delays in granting licenses, which include pollution controls. Dozens of power plants under construction across India, amounting to more than $22 billion in investment, will sit idle next year because of the coal shortage, officials say.

“Never before have we had such a high demand for coal,” said Sriprakash Jaiswal, India’s coal minister. “And never before has our environmental consciousness been so high either. Both are legitimate worries. But the solution is not to clamp down on coal production.”

Jaiswal tried to break the impasse by promising an aggressive reforestation campaign in the coal fields after they are mined. But at a meeting last month, Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan said that even less-dense forests have high ecological importance and need to be protected.

Worried about delays in getting permission to mine, Indian businesses have begun acquiring coal mines in Indonesia, Mozambique and South Africa, a trend many call India’s “coal rush.”

“It takes about seven years for us to get environment and forest approvals to start mining in India. Can we afford to wait that long?” said U. Kumar, a coal adviser to the Confederation of Indian Industry.

But activists say meeting India’s power needs could be ecologically unsustainable.

India’s dependence on coal will continue to grow for 30 years, experts say. Proposed nuclear power reactors will take many years to complete, and renewable-energy sources can, at best, light up rural homes and streetlights but not power factories, said Jaiswal, the coal minister.

“We have solar energy for six hours a day. But it can light only two bulbs. If the coal can bring 24 hours of electricity to our homes, my children can study better, and I can buy a television,” said Amme Lal, from Morga village in Chhattisgarh, who was taking home on his bicycle logs from the forest for cooking fire. “But I have also seen how sad coal mines look — all black, no trees, fumes rising.”

In Chhattisgarh, which has the second-highest concentration of coal mines in India, the environment ministry has barred mining in seven coal fields that lie under 26,000 acres of forestland.

The state’s chief minister, Raman Singh, wants to convert Chhattisgarh into a hub for thermal power because of the large coal reserves here and sell electricity to other Indian states. But the debate in New Delhi over forests has dented his dream, and he has been lobbying hard with the national government to speed up the approval process and lift the no-go pronouncement on the mines near where Marpachi lives.

“Everybody needs electricity. Can you argue with that?” Singh said. “Let us look for technology that can minimize environmental damage in coal mines.”

In June, the council in Marpachi’s village passed a resolution opposing the mining proposal, likening the destruction of forests to suicide.

“A forest does not mean just trees. You lose the entire biodiversity, and you disrupt livelihoods and communities, too,” said Alok Shukla, an environmentalist with the Save Chhattisgarh Movement. “We need to look at alternative sources of energy. Consent of communities that depend on forestland should be taken, and they should be given ownership over the natural resources.”

Companies barred from mining in the no-go areas of Chhattisgarh are bemoaning their investments.

“We have already sunk over $600 million in expanding our power plant and steel factory because we expected an assured coal supply from the mines,” said Sridhar Tripathi, consultant to Madanpur South Coal Co. “So much hue and cry over the forest. Coal is nature’s treasure. We are willing to replant 26 times the trees we will cut. But we can’t shift the coal field to another area.”

Rama Lakshmi has been with The Post's India bureau since 1990. She is a staff writer and India social media editor for Post World.
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