The coal blocks are located in Chhattisgarh. The coal is meant for power plants in Rajasthan and other states.

 

New Delhi: Two Congress state governments are at loggerheads with each other over operationalizing coal blocks. The coal blocks are located in Chhattisgarh. The coal is meant for power plants in Rajasthan and other states. But work has not happened for over six years, sorry seven. And there lies the main story.

The Rajasthan government has made several representations to the Chhattisgarh government seeking the latter’s intervention to resolve the crisis. Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot—claim those in the know—have made repeated calls to the Chhattisgarh CM but nothing has worked.

On 9 December 2021, Gehlot rushed R.K. Sharma, chairman and managing director of state utility Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited (RVUNL) to meet Chhattisgarh’s chief secretary Amitabh Jain and other key officials to resolve the crisis. Sharma returned empty handed.

Top sources told this reporter that Gehlot and his officials, in the last couple of months, wrote a number of letters to the Chhattisgarh government. In absence of a favourable outcome, they have asked the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to intervene. In his representations to the PMO, Gehlot said his government is facing the wrath of the public on account of higher electricity tariff. Worse, Rajasthan is also facing penalties for incessant delays in operationalising the coal blocks.

It was in 2015 that the Centre awarded three coal blocks, Parsa East Kanta Basan (PEKB) Block, Parsa Block and Kente Extension Block. Of these, only PEKB Block has become operational and produces 15 million tonnes of coal annually, while the development of other two blocks is languishing due to delays in necessary clearances from the Chhattisgarh government. Commencement of the remaining two blocks can double the coal production for Rajasthan from its captive blocks in Chhattisgarh to reduce its dependence from central PSU Coal India that is unable to supply the con tracted fuel quantity.

Rajasthan utility is struggling to meet the state’s peak demand of 14,000 MW of electricity at an affordable tariff. Last month, Rajasthan had to increase electricity tariffs further by 33 paisa per unit for the period of next three months on account of higher costs of coal and power purchase from the exchanges.

“I would like to apprise you that the State has invested more than Rs 40,000 crore in thermal power stations installed in the State. These coal blocks fulfil majority of coal requirements of current as well as upcoming RVUNL power stations and are essential to ensure fuel security in the form of uninterrupted supply of coal to produce electricity for the state. I have been informed that the ‘PEKB’ coal block has achieved peak rated capacity of 15 MTPA and partially fulfils the current coal requirement of RVUNL power stations. However, Parsa and Kente Extension Coal blocks are under various stages of development,” Gehlot wrote to the Chhattisgarh government in October 2020.

Gehlot added: “I shall be grateful if you may kindly arrange to direct the concerned State Government officials to expedite the various approvals for early development of ‘Parsa’ and ‘Kente Extension’ coal blocks and continued operation of ‘PEKB’ coal block, enabling RVUNL to meet fuel requirement of the state’s (read Rajasthan) power generating stations and fulfil power requirements of consumers of Rajasthan.”

This has not yielded any favourable outcome despite several follow ups till date.

Subsequent representations by Gehlot and his top bureaucrats to the Chhattisgarh government have also gone in vain. To make matters worse for Rajasthan, public hearing for the Kente Extension block has been deferred twice by the district administration of Surguja of Chhattisgarh, without specifying the reasons. Two critical blocks remain undeveloped even after six years now while Rajasthan bears the brunt of one of the most expensive power tariff structures.

But what is stopping the Chhattisgarh government from executing the projects?

At the heart of the mines is a proposed elephant reserve that has become the proverbial Achilles’ heel for the Chhattisgarh government. The previous forest cover for an estimated 260 elephants was 400 square kilometres. It has been expanded by the Congress government by five times to almost 2,000 square kilometres. But the move has triggered protests from certain activists claiming to be representing tribals living in the vicinity of these blocks located near forests of the Lemru Elephant Reserve (LER) around the Hasdeo river in the state. On the other hand, a section of tribes has made representations to the state government to allow Rajasthan to develop its blocks. In October, locals also opposed the handful of protestors who planned a foot march between Surguja and state capital Raipur.

In mid-November, locals from the affected villages represented before the Chhattisgarh Governor, Anusuiya Uikey that certain elements are misrepresenting their interests to jeopardise the development projects. They requested Governor Uikey to allow land acquisition to Rajasthan so that they can get their compensation at the earliest.

It is worth mentioning here that Chhattisgarh accounted for the highest coal production of 158 million tonnes in the country’s total production of over 700 million tonnes in 2020-21. Only Rajasthan’s two critical two blocks are facing the uncertainty in the state where the Chhattisgarh government is giving red carpet to investors in the mining sector. The state has offered a number of coal blocks for commercial mining.

But this is not all.

In Chhattisgarh, one side of the story is about preventing Rajasthan from coal mining for forests and elephants.

The Hasdeo Aranya is a large forested corridor that stretches over 1,500 KM through central India. No one knows why the government allowed this area to be mined for coal when it was a traditional hub of tribals and elephants. And also, no one knows why the forest cover for the elephants went up five times from 400 to 2,000 square kilometres.

The other side revolves around the issue of companies operating coal mines for the state utilities in the area. Among those is the Adani group, which is a mine developer and operator (MDO)—it means the company is developing the mine for someone else and not for itself—in the region. There are close to 40 such contracts under the new generation model of outsourcing where different mining companies operate as MDO contractors for state-owned mining assets.

So let us evaluate what Adani is doing in Rajasthan’s Chhattisgarh blocks. The Ahmedabad-based Adani Group has won mining contracts from the mine owner government of Rajasthan through competitive bidding. If coal has to be mined, it is natural to get rid of trees from the zone and compensate with larger afforestation elsewhere, as mandated by the regulations. The coal block operated by Adani is for power generation companies of Rajasthan. Adani will not take the coal and sell it for commercial purposes on its own. If private contractor Adani is present in Hasdeo Aranya it needs to be mentioned here that it is because of successive government’s decision to offer the mines to private firms to make most of the country’s nearly five billion tonnes of coal reserves.

The private sector is often pilloried in India by activists and politicians instead of state utilities. Kolkata-based PSU Coal India, which is the world’s largest coal mining firm, also has massive operations in Chhattisgarh but faces no opposition from local critics advocating for forests and tribal areas. A section of protesters in Raipur are targeting the MDO contractor since their activism against the interests of another Congress ruled state Rajasthan may not attract any support.

The slugfest between Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh is turning out to be India’s biggest environmental debate. At the heart of it is the big buck question whether elephants need such a huge forest cover and, equally and importantly, would the state governments now completely stop hawking coal mines located in forest areas?

The Indian government has always been at loggerheads with the country’s environmentalists who have demanded huge tracts of forest cover for the animals. Sadly in India, decisions relating to environmental issues are all political. Worse, political parties—when in power—try their level best to cancel or reverse decisions made by the previous governments. As a result, decisions about expanding or shrinking animal habitats are always mired in controversies. And sadly, every time the commercial aspect of the cases—ranging from coal and iron ore mines to oil fields—are ignored.

The per capita electricity consumption in India is estimated at about 1,200 units a year and there is a huge disparity between rural and urban areas. It is half of Brazil, one fourth of China and sixth of Russia among BRICS nations. On account of unreliability of much hyped renewable energy, coal is the most economical solution to ensure uninterrupted electricity to the 1.3 billion population of India that has the fifth largest coal reserves in the world. Also, India is the world’s second largest coal importer after China. Solar power is not a viable option to ensure power for all in the world’s second most populated nation.

It is important to note here that delayed clearances for Rajasthan’s block has already made a dent in potential royalty revenues for Chhattisgarh where the Congress government has announced ambitious plans for the agriculture sector while it has failed to attract new investments into mining and allied industries.

Someone must answer, work must start.