In central India, the PEKB coal mine, operated by Adani, has ravaged the local environment and displaced indigenous people. Originally, this area was a ‘no go’ zone for coal mining because of the biodiverse Hasdeo forests. But Adani has been able to overcome all obstacles – political and regulatory – in its pursuit of this coal project, the first of many earmarked for this biodiverse region.
This excellent piece on the PEKB coal mine was first published in The Crucial Years, a weekly newsletter on how India is dealing with its environment as we navigate the most critical decade of action. AdaniWatch thanks the author, Nihar Gokhale, and The Morning Context for permission to re-publish it.
There’s a coal mine in central India that is perhaps the most storied and controversial of India’s mines. It helped launch the Adani group’s coal operations when it was still a commodities and ports company and Gautam Adani wasn’t yet Asia’s richest person. And, over the years, it has gone through every imaginable controversy—from India’s infamous coal scam to questions of forest conservation and rights of the local tribespeople.
Yet, from being nearly shut down twice for violating mining and environmental laws, the Parsa East Kente Basan (PEKB) coal mine in northern Chhattisgarh has come a long way. It is currently the largest operational mine in the Adani group, which runs it as a contractor for a Rajasthan government utility. Earlier this week, I noticed there was a new development, not yet reported in the press. An expert panel in the environment ministry had recommended a 20% expansion of the mine. If that gets the final approval of the ministry (such recommendations almost always do), the PEKB mine would have nearly doubled in capacity since it began operations in 2013.
I have been a keen observer of this mine and its development over the years. The forests at PEKB are called Hasdeo Arand and are one of the largest contiguous patches of forest in India. During the UPA era, the PEKB mine was one of those cases that stoked fears that either coal will destroy forests, or that forests will kill economic growth.
For some time, it looked like the mine would not come up. First, it was marked as a ‘no go’ area for coal mining, and the ministry’s forest advisory committee also said the mine should not come up. Then environment minister Jairam Ramesh, contrary to everything he was known for, approved the mine. Next the National Green Tribunal (NGT) set aside the approval. The Supreme Court stayed the NGT order. Then the Supreme Court cancelled the mine’s allocation, as part of the broader coal-scam judgement. The Modi government went on to reallocate the mine under questionable circumstances. (I have laid out the whole timeline in the section at the end).
In the last few years, PEKB has become an example of how nothing can really stop a coal mine from coming up if the government really wants it. And how even Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s promises can be broken by his own party colleagues in their quest for PEKB’s coal reserves.
That is the other noteworthy aspect behind the PEKB mine’s rise, and one I haven’t heard of as much. The sole recipients of this coal are thermal power plants in Rajasthan.
Rajasthan has recently achieved 100% electrification, but half of the state’s electricity is produced from coal-based sources. Coal from PEKB met half of the state power utility’s coal needs, a state government source told The Indian Express. Last December, Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot wrote to Chhattisgarh CM Bhupesh Baghel asking him to ‘expedite’ clearances for coal blocks in Parsa Kente because his state was running out of coal. Gehlot has since written to Congress supremo Sonia Gandhi and the environment ministry with the same demands.
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The state of Rajasthan gets so much sunlight that in 2019 it aimed to set up 30 GW of solar power capacity. The state has a total electricity generation capacity of 22 GW at present, including 10 GW of coal-fired thermal power. In an ideal world, Rajasthan should have already achieved its solar power aims, cutting its need for coal.
And although the state is adding solar and wind power at a fast pace, it would take at least 10 years for renewables to make up 75% of the state’s power demand, according to an estimate by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. The state also needs to address land conflicts caused by its liberalised policy to use government and private lands. India’s erratic policy on import of Chinese solar panels does not help.
Seeing that Rajasthan is dependent on coal from Hasdeo shows why this transition needs to happen urgently. Until then, coal mining will continue to expand in Hasdeo, and it will be justified as a necessity. The latest recommendation from the environment ministry is hardly the end of the story. In the years to come, the mine could expand further. Two new mines are proposed right next to it, also operated by the Adani group for the Rajasthan utility. If PEKB is anything to go by, these mines will overcome all odds and thrive. This is a big win for Adani. For the forests and people of the region, there’s a lot of pain in store.
The rise, fall and rise of the Parsa Kente mines: a play in three acts
Act-I: a new block
For millennia, coal remained buried under the Hasdeo Arand forests, a traditional territory of the local Gond tribes. In 2007, the government of India allotted PEKB to the Rajasthan government’s power generation utility, the Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Ltd, or RRVUNL. In 2008, RRVUNL selected the Adani group to run the mine as a mine developer and operator, the first such contract in India.
The PEKB mine occupies 2682 hectares, 70% of which is a forest. That forest almost shut down the mine before it even began.
In 2010, the block was marked as a proposed ‘no go’ area for coal mining. The union ministries of coal and environment had come up with the idea as a solution to the endless debates and litigation over environment and development. They would simply mark eco-sensitive areas in advance. But this idea remained on paper. PEKB became one of the early mines from such areas to be opened up.
In 2011, in a surprise move, environment minister Jairam Ramesh granted forest clearance to the mine. His ministry’s forest expert panel had actually recommended rejecting the clearance on the ground that the mine was in a biodiversity-rich area. Usually, ministers follow such advice. Ramesh justified his decision on six grounds, including that the coal mine was far away from biodiversity-rich parts of the forest, that the mine had a ‘well prepared’ wildlife conservation plan, and that the governments of Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan were ‘persistently following up’.
Act-II: courting trouble
Sudiep Srivastava, an activist in Chhattisgarh, appealed against the decision to the National Green Tribunal, which had been recently set up. Three years later, in March 2014, the NGT set aside Ramesh’s decision, saying that the minister had acted ‘arbitrarily’ and that his reasons had ‘no basis either in any authoritative study or experience in the relevant fields’.
The Rajasthan utility went to the Supreme Court, which promptly (a month later, in April 2014) stayed the NGT’s order. The matter is still pending. According to a December 2020 report by the environment ministry, the delay is due to COVID-19. But Supreme Court records show the last hearing was in April 2019.
Operations had begun at PEKB when the coal-block scam came to light. In September 2014, the Supreme Court cancelled coal-block allocations. The PEKB mine was also cancelled. The reason: the Rajasthan power utility had entered a joint venture with the Adani Group to mine the block, and moreover it was a minority partner in the venture. The court held such JVs to be illegal.
Act-III: rise and rise
In 2015, the Modi government enacted a new law that said coal blocks would be auctioned to private companies or allocated to government entities. It once again allocated the PEKB block to the Rajasthan power utility, which simply appointed the same joint venture as mine operator. The manner in which this happened is laid out in an investigation by The Caravan magazine.
Meanwhile, residents of the area had opposed mining and in 2014, the local gram sabha (village council) refused to consent to the mine. This was a rare example of a gram sabha in a forest using its veto under the Forest Rights Act, 2006. In 2016, the local district administration cancelled the community’s forest rights—even though the law does not provide for such a cancellation. The gram sabha went to the state high court against this decision. That case too is pending. The environment ministry says that the gram sabha has not shown up in court since 2016.
Over the last few years, two mines next to PEKB – Parsa and Kente Extension – have also been proposed to be opened up. They are also with the Rajasthan utility, with Adani as the operator. A few years before the 2018 Chhattisgarh elections, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi had promised that new coal mines would not be opened up without people’s consent. The Congress won the elections, but CM Bhupesh Baghel is proposing to reduce the area of an elephant reserve so that the mines can come up without a wildlife clearance.
In October 2021, villagers living near the mines walked 300 km to Raipur, the state capital, to oppose coal mining in the forests. A week later, the Parsa mine received a final forest clearance.
The Morning Context