Andal on lips, Delhi stokes coal concern
April 19: A puzzling remark by Union coal minister Sriprakash Jaiswal in Bengal has revived a debate whether scarce natural resources can be locked up underground to facilitate investment ventures overground.
Jaiswal today appeared to suggest that he had asked chief minister Mamata Banerjee to stop work on the Andal airport city as 400 million tonnes of coal lay beneath the project site.
"I have learnt after coming here that work is going on in full swing at the proposed airport city. I had sent two letters to the previous government and I will again send a letter to the present chief minister urging her to stop it. There are nearly 400 million tonnes of coal beneath the project site," Jaiswal said in response to a question on the fate of the Andal project near Durgapur.
The question was prompted by the minister's opening statement that he had written to chief ministers of states that have coal-bearing zones not to give clearance to projects in such areas.
"Coal is national property and if such projects come up on coal-bearing land, raising of coal will be affected and lead to national loss. I have sent similar letters to the Union ministries (dealing with issuing clearances for projects)," he said at the Eastern Coalfields' headquarters in Sanktoria near Asansol town.
But Bengal Aerotropolis Projects Ltd, the promoter of the Andal airport project, said in a statement: "We are surprised at the statement of the coal minister. The coal ministry has clearly stated that both the aerotropolis activities and the underground mining can be carried out simultaneously."
Bengal industries minister Partha Chatterjee, too, could not gauge what exactly the Union minister meant. "I have not yet received any official communication. I am a bit doubtful about what the coal minister meant. The project was announced when we were not in the government. I am surprised the coal minister is objecting to the project when it is on the verge of completion."
Officials in the coal ministry suggested the minister's comments should not be construed as a blanket bar. "The minister has written a general letter to all chief ministers requesting that infrastructure projects should not be set up in coal-bearing areas. However, this was not a blanket disapproval of all projects... we understand that some projects, such as roads, airports and hospitals, will come up. But these have to be done in a manner so that coal mining is not stopped or disrupted," an official said.
Coal India first voiced its objections in 2009, saying there were huge reserves of high-grade coal under about 400 acres within the proposed airport project. The Left Front government then decided to trim the size by 400 acres and realigned the project to 1,850 acres.
Questions were then raised about the viability of mining coal scattered across the project site.
But such questions have lost their edge now with the steady rise in the price of coal, which makes most operations viable, and improvements in mining and purifying the fuel.
The price of coal has been increased recently by restructuring a decades-old formula that makes it more remunerative for companies like Coal India.
Methods such as longwall mining, under which a large slab or wall of coal is mined as a single slice, have helped reduce costs. The rising prices and cost-cutting innovations have meant that coal blocks previously considered unattractive are drawing a second look.
Coal ministry officials stressed that coal was a natural resource whose demand was growing with power plants coming up across the country. This was one of the reasons why the ministry was not in favour of the airport project in Andal initially.
Jaiswal emphasised today that the pressure to produce more coal had gone up after Coal India recently signed fuel supply agreements with power plants.
"We are bound to supply 80 per cent of the total demand for coal at power plants and for that, we need to enhance production at our old coal mines and create more mines. If big projects come up on land with underground coal reserves, how can we raise coal?" the minister said.