Countries burning fossil fuel can't give sermons on climate change: Joshi

Whatever revenue comes will go to the states. Initially there will be a coal index and then a regulator. Having a regulator will take some time, says Pralhad Joshi
The Centre has announced auctioning of coal mines for commercial exploitation and sale, but the mine-bearing states have been apprehensive of this. Some have pointed to environmentally sensitive zones in which these mines are located while others fear a revenue shortfall. In an interview with Shreya Jai, Union Minister for Coal, Mines and Parliamentary Affairs Pralhad Joshi says he will replace mines from the auction if chief ministers object but they should understand this will change the economic situation in states. Edited excerpts:

The country is grappling with a pandemic and economic slowdown. Why has the Centre decided to go ahead with commercial coal mining now?

The idea of commercial mining did not germinate suddenly. It was there and the prime minister made it part of the Aatmanirbhar Bharat package. Before that, we had discussion with states, who are the stakeholders. Before announcing the auction, we had shared the list of close to 100 proposed mines and made enquiries if the industry was interested. We selected only those mines in which there was a substantial interest. Secondly, in just days of commencing the auction process, there have been 329 registrations, 26 tender documents have been sold, and 10 people have registered themselves for visiting the mines. The pandemic will remain for a few months but whatever investment has to come in these mines will come after eight-nine months. 

Some small teething issues have emerged. We are replacing one mine in Maharashtra because it lies in an eco-sensitive zone. So the auction process could be extended for another 30 days. The process takes 90-120 days. Mines which are ready to produce will take another seven-nine months to be operational. By then, I’m confident the Indian and world economies will revive. For the mines offered, 5-15 people have shown an interest in each mine. 

States and opposition parties have raised concern about some mines being in environmentally sensitive zones and “no-go” areas. Would you replace more mines on the current list?

The concept of “no-go” areas was born during the UPA regime, which itself abandoned it. Jairam Ramesh as environment minister gave permission for mining in “no-go” areas. Now it is “low, medium & high conservative” areas. In “high conservative”, there will be more restrictions but mining is allowed.

Ramesh is confused and changed his stance every few years. First he said coalfields would never be opened up for mining. Then three years later, he gave clearance for three blocks. He had earlier introduced the concept of “no go” areas. Then later he accepted his mistake and said these coal blocks belonged to supercritical thermal power plants which emitted less greenhouse gas and should be approved.

We have to decide whether we should import coal and burn or produce our own coal, provide employment, and save on foreign exchange. Without any question, an environment balance should be maintained. We never compromised on environment issues but at the same time we need energy for the growth of economy.

States are concerned that an “environment impact assessment” has been eased for these mines.

The environment ministry, in consultation with states, will determine whether we can allot these mines. I had a detailed discussion with the Chhattisgarh chief minister and he said there was a problem with four mines. If the state government wants, we will replace these mines. Both the Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh chief ministers have supported commercial coal mining.

State governments have questioned the timing of the auction, saying not much revenue would be garnered because the bids wouldn’t be high due to economic slowdown.

I would like to apprise the states about this when this pandemic is in some control. Only those mines in which is an interest have been put up for auction. Such apprehensions are flawed. 

How is the Centre ensuring revenue maximisation for states? Also, what is the status of having a regulator for coal?

Whatever revenue comes will go to the states. Initially there will be a coal index and then a regulator. Having a regulator will take some time. 

There are government reports that estimate a fall in demand for coal in the coming decade. Where does commercial mining fit into this and also wouldn’t it disturb the climate change commitments? 

Coal India has planted a hundred million trees in mining areas. Private players too will have to take the responsibility of environment protection.

China is producing 3.5 billion tonnes of coal a year. The US is producing oil. These countries cannot give us sermons on climate change. We are working towards all climate change commitments we have made on the global stage. 

We are also doing coal gasification liquefaction and coal bed methane which are all less polluting.

How much total coal production is envisaged for the country in five years?

I think it will be 1,000-1,200 million tonne (1-1.2 billion tonne). 

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