Business, Economics and Jobs

GreenTalk: "Coalgate scam" should draw attention to India's wholesale destruction of the environment


Allegations of corruption in India's allotment of coal mining rights should draw attention not only to graft, but also to the wholesale destruction of the environment.


Daniel Berehulak

The so-called "Coalgate scam" that rocked India Thursday is about more than corruption. If anybody is listening, it should focus new scrutiny on flaws in the country's system of green clearances and the ongoing wholesale destruction of the environment.

As GlobalPost (and others!) reported Thursday, a political scandal broke out in India when it was discovered that $210 billion of the country's revenue has allegedly been lost in a coal scam of enormous proportions, according to a draft auditing report cited by the Times of India

The preliminary findings from the Comptroller & Auditor General's (CAG) office accuse the government of providing the nation's coal deposits to private and state-run entities instead of publicly auctioning them off to the highest bidder, resulting in staggering, multi-billion dollar losses from 2004-2009.

Though the prime minister's office sought to downplay the controversy later Thursday, cherrypicking quotes from a letter from the CAG that indicated these findings were only preliminary, the full text of the letter is damning, according to the Times of India.

Regardless, much more than financial losses are at stake here.

Corruption in the allotment of government-owned or controlled resources is nothing new, as India's Mail Today newspaper pointed out Thursday. The paper quoted a recent Transparency International report on the growing nexus between corporations and government officials as saying, "Collusive corruption, where officials join hands with the private sector, is greatly present in the Indian business environment, particularly in the power, mining and oil sectors."

The worst news, though, is that the environmental impact of this "collusive corruption" promises to be devastating. The supposed "Coalgate scam" has neither been proven nor even investigated fully yet, of course, so one can't say for sure what its full effect was. But, in general, statistics suggest that the phenomenon of "collusive corruption" identified as on the increase by Transparency International may be undermining environmental protection -- even as the prime minister and others say environmental concerns are slowing down "development."

The numbers tell a different story.

Over the past 30 years, only 6 percent of proposed industrial projects were blocked on environmental grounds, according to the New Delhi-based Center for Science and Environment (CSE). And about a quarter of the total forest land devoted to industrial projects since 1981 was allotted between 2007 and 2011, during which more than 8,000 projects were granted environmental clearance. Meanwhile, though official statistics maintain, beyond all reason, that India's forest cover has actually increased since 1987 despite development and massive population growth, the reality is that the so-called forests are mostly single-species timber plantations, according to environmental writer Jay Mazoomdar. Even worse, in many cases, state governments tapped “compensatory afforestation” funds to plant them.

Moreover, in coal mining -- which is essential for India's power industry -- the picture is particularly grim. India has some 575 coal mines, producing 550 million tonnes of coal per year, CSE reveals. But some 180 projects were given clearance by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to start mining or increase capacity over the past five years, which CSE projects will double the country's coal output. 

Worse still, nobody appears to be paying attention to the cumulative environmental impact of the increase. Many new projects are slated for already critically polluted areas, while one-third of the existing mines are already violating pollution laws.