India May Allow Coal Mining in Dense Forests to Meet Rising Power Demand

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The Indian government is considering opening up densely forested areas of the country to increase supply of coal for its new thermal power plants.

The Indian government is in the process of establishing several Ultra Mega Power Projects (UMPP) which would be among the largest power generation units in the country. These power plants would operate at efficiencies significantly higher than the conventional themral power plants. While the average efficiency of thermal power plants is around 30 percent, the UMPPs would have energy conversion rates of up to 40 to 45 percent.

While these power plants will be more efficient in the sense that they would generate more power per unit of coal used but they will still use massive amount of coal which would produce significant amount of carbon emissions. The UMPPs would also help India achieve its target to reduce carbon intensity by 20 to 25 percent by 2020.

India continues to rely heavily on coal-fired power plants for power generation. Coal contributes to over 50 percent of about 160 GW of installed power capacity in India. The reason for this is simple: India is the third largest coal producing nation in the world with proven reserves of 105 billion tonnes.

Infrastructure development and rural electrification are high on the Indian government’s agenda. The ultimate goal of eliminating poverty can be achieved only through inclusive growth which needs to expand to the rural areas of India. Thousands of villages and millions of people are not connected to the grid, any attempt to provide them with electricity would mean investment of billions of dollars.

Since coal is cheap and locally available it continues to the obvious energy option. However, there are several environmental and socio-economic issues related to coal mining, specifically, in forested areas. One would have to keep in mind the rights of the tribals who live in the surrounding areas. Additionally, there would be significant environmental impact, firstly, from the clearing of forests and, secondly, from the mining activities themselves.

Already some infrastructure and energy projects have been rejected due to environmental concerns. The Environment and Forest minister Jairam Ramesh has been in the media limelight for canceling several high profile infrastructure projects including a bauxite mining project proposed by aluminum giant Vendanta.

There are growing concerns about the apparent marginalization of the local tribes and people of these resources-rich areas. A growing belief among many intellectuals and even politicians is that the problem of Naxalism is being fueled because the local population is not getting the benefits of the resource exploitation.

India’s responsibility to reduce carbon emissions would only increase in the future and as it aims to provide basic amenities to its growing population, the Indian government is finding itself in a dilemma to balance environment protection, social welfare and economic development.

Article by Mridul Chadha, appearing courtesy ecopolitology.

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