I am equally concerned about environment as anyone else

New Delhi: With coal production of over 660 million tonnes at stake due to controversial ‘no-go’ classification, Coal Minister Sriprakash Jaiswal on Wednesday said India can not afford safeguarding its environment at the cost of peoples’ hunger and poverty at this juncture.

“I am equally concerned about the environment as anyone else (Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh). Saving forests is indeed crucial, but not at the cost of compromising with the nation’s industrialisation and growth,” Mr. Jaiswal said.

Even though the Environment Ministry is believed to have cleared about 23 projects that were earlier classified as ‘no-go’ zones recently, the fate of 203 coal blocks with a potential output of 660 million tonnes per annum has been unclear.

As many as 154 projects of Coal India Limited (CIL) are stalled due to delays in environmental and forest clearances at the Centre and state level.

The country’s growth and industrialisation depend on augmenting coal production, he said, adding that coal constitutes about 55 per cent of India’s energy mix and there “seems to be no other alternative for another 10-15 years”.

He, however, regretted that efforts to augment production ran into a stumbling block in the form of environmental clearances, despite the Coal Ministry agreeing to 2.5 times more plantation over mined areas and offering third party inspection of reclaimed areas.

Coal production, which recorded growth of 7 per cent last fiscal, has dipped to just 2 per cent this year. “We are trying our best that we restore it to 7 per cent again as 10 per cent is unlikely next fiscal,” the Minister said.

Both the environment and coal ministries have been at loggerheads for over a year now after the former classified 203 coal blocks as “no go” areas, where mining is prohibited.

Mr. Jaiswal had earlier said various companies have already committed Rs 35,000 crore for end-use projects in lieu of coal block allotment. Several coal blocks in “no go” areas were allotted to firms like Hindustan Zinc, Ultra Tech and Essar.

In the absence of permission for coal mining in 203 blocks, about 1,30,000 MW of potential power generation capacity per annum is likely to be stalled.

Meanwhile, the government has formed a Group of Ministers, headed by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, for early resolution of issues hurting coal production with a view to bridge the widening demand-supply gap.

The 12-member GoM that met last week is scheduled to convene again in mid-March.

The country faces a shortfall of 83 million tonnes of coal this fiscal, which is set to go up further to 200 MT by 2013-14 as per official data. India’s coal production is projected at 630 MT in 2011-12 against likely demand of 713 MT.

Mr. Jaiswal said importing coal was an option to bridge the widening demand-supply gap, but was not feasible.

“The alternative of coal import to bridge demand-supply deficit is so costly that power prices would rise exorbitantly, which we cannot afford,” he said, adding that the solution lay in early clearances for coal projects.

Moreover, coal production is less polluting, as it did not produce benzene, lead and cadmium like other exploitative industries.