Home Magazines Conservation Dead Tigers Or Clean Electricity? – How Coal Is Destroying Chandrapur’s Tiger Forests

Dead Tigers Or Clean Electricity? – How Coal Is Destroying Chandrapur’s Tiger Forests

Dead Tigers Or Clean Electricity? – How Coal Is Destroying Chandrapur’s Tiger Forests

The pugmarks were clear in the damp mud of the track – a leopard had passed this way, and probably not many hours ago, before sunrise. Just off the track, buffaloes wallowed noisily in a muddy pool, and villagers passed by us with bamboo from the forest, from which they would weave baskets.

A tigress with cubs has been sighted regularly near the Padmapur mine. Credit:Dhiraj Singh/Greenpeace

We were in an area demarcated as the Lohara Extension coal block, which until 2010 was destined to be handed over to the Adani group to mine the millions of tonnes of coal that lie under the forests – forests that are tiger, gaur and leopard habitat. To the north of us, just about 10 km. as the crow flies, was the buffer of the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR). Around and to the south of us was the Junona forest area, which from all reports is almost as rich in wildlife as the tiger reserve itself.

In this age of climate change, it seems incredible that anyone could consider razing these forests to get at the coal underneath. And yet this is exactly what is happening in dozens of locations around TATR. For every one Adani mine that hits the limelight and is denied clearance, there are probably a dozen that go through unnoticed. To the east of the Lohara Extension block is another large area of forest designated the Chinchpalli coal block; if anything, coal mining here would be even more destructive than at Lohara. The fate of the Chinchpalli block is as yet undecided, though the Ministry of Environment and Forests has declared it a “no go” area.

I was in Chandrapur with Praveen Bhargav of Wildlife First, Biswajit Mohanty of Wildlife Society of Orissa and Rahul Choudhary of Legal Initiative for Forest & Environment, part of a fact-finding mission organised by Greenpeace. Our objective was to see first-hand the impact that India’s thirst for coal is having on its tigers, wildlife and forest ecosystems.

And what we saw was far from pleasant. Earlier that day we had left the Chandrapur Super Thermal Power Station (CSTPS) behind us, spewing its noxious gases, as we headed towards the Padmapur and Durgapur mining areas. These mines are on the edge of the TATR’s buffer and have been in existence for many years; their coal is burnt by the CSTPS to generate the electricity that Mumbai and Pune consume.

This and other proposed coal mines are destroying forest corridors between the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve and other PAs. Credit:Dhiraj Singh/Greenpeace

“A tigress with her cubs has been seen regularly in this area this year,” said Bandu Dhotre of the NGO EcoPro, as we stood looking down into the Durgapur Deep mine. At first, it seemed hard to believe – around us was a mosaic of fields and open forest, but to the east and north was the darker green of Reserve Forests on the edge of the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve. A glance at Google Earth makes it clear why tiger presence is to be expected here. Padmapur, Durgapur, the Lohara blocks and the Chinchpalli block all lie in a corridor connecting TATR to the forests to the south. Tigers that move out from the reserve would naturally try to pass through this area. The Durgapur and Padmapur mines are both seeking clearances for further expansion which will constrict the corridor even further.

WHY TIGERS NEED FOREST CORRIDORS

Corridors are of critical importance to tigers. Male tigers range over large areas in search of suitable mates, and young tigers need corridors to allow them to disperse in search of their own territories. While keeping tiger reserves and Protected Areas safe has so far taken priority, ensuring the presence of disturbance free corridors that connect different PAs and forest patches is equally important if the species is to remain secure and genetically vibrant. And corridors are important not just for tigers; they also provide ‘stepping stones’ to maintain landscape continuity between larger forest blocks. Continuity is also essential for basic ecosystem functions such as pollination and dispersal of plant species.

Tadoba-Chandrapur has been identified as one of only three functional populations of tigers in the central Indian landscape by the National Tiger Conservation Authority. The larger Tadoba-Chandrapur-Gadchiroli-Indravati landscape has the potential to harbour several long-term tiger populations, provided corridors are maintained and restored. Links between these populations are essential to maintain long-term genetic viability.

TATR plays an important role in the landscape. It is connected to the Nagzira-Navegaon belt to the northeast, the Chaprala Sanctuary and then the Indravati Tiger Reserve to the east and southeast and there are links, although patchy, up to the Kawal Sanctuary (and proposed Tiger Reserve) in Andhra Pradesh to the south. Tenuous forest links, also exist to the Bor Sanctuary and the Umrer forest to the north and northwest. 

As long as the corridors connecting TATR to other Protected Areas remain intact, TATR can continue to function as a source population, from which tigers can populate peripheral forests. For the peripheral forests to absorb and sustain these “spill over” tigers from TATR, they need to be kept intact, and remain connected to other forest areas through viable corridors. It is in this light that the rapid “islanding” of the Tadoba-Chandrapur tiger population needs to be seen.

HOW MUCH COAL DOES INDIA REALLY NEED?

If India continues to consume coal-fired electricity at current rates, we will require an annual coal supply of at least 1,000 million tonnes, almost double the current domestic production of 532 million tonnes. To meet this demand, India will have to massively increase the forest area being mined for coal. The Planning Commission estimates that if domestic coal production continues to grow at five per cent per year, our coal reserves will run out in just 45 years, after which we will have no coal, and will have lost large areas of forest as well.

Energy efficiency and renewable energy can cut India’s dependence on coal.

  1. Power plant efficiency: Average worldwide coal-fired power plant efficiency is around 33 per cent; the average in India is only 29 per cent.
  2. Demand side management: Energy efficiency measures and a reduction in transmission and distribution losses can save 255 billion kWh (kilowatt hours) for India. Prayas has estimated that upgrading ceiling fans in every household in Maharashtra alone can save 2,072 GWh in 2020. Replacing incandescent bulbs with CFLs can save the country 10,000 MW of electricity.
  3. Renewable energy: According to the National Action Plan on Climate Change, India can generate more than 97,000 MW through solar, wind and other renewable systems. That would be equivalent to replacing 485 million tonnes of coal, close to the current annual production of coal in India!
  4. Decentralised renewable energy systems (DRE): DRE is a more economical means of achieving domestic electrification, particularly in rural areas. Electrifying a village of 500 households situated 100 km. from a grid transmission line would cost approximately 100 million (10 crore) rupees, whereas the same village could be electrified through suitable renewable energy systems for less than half the cost. A biomass-based DRE system for a village of the same size would cost less than 10 million (one crore) rupees.
  5. Untapped reserves: Coal India Limited presently holds 200,000 hectares of land under mining lease, of which 55,000 hectares is forest land. Does Coal India really need to ask for more forest land?

The next day we headed for the forests north of TATR, off the Warora-Chimur road. This is the only connection between TATR and the forests towards the Bor Sanctuary to the northwest and the Umrer forests and the Nagzira-Navegaon belt to the northeast. Here too, a similar story unfolded, only the names differed: the Bander block, the Murpar Expansion, Surmanjiri and other coal blocks all up for grabs, all in tiger habitat. Cattle kills are common, and there had been attacks on humans as well, making it clear that tigers rely on these forests. Mining in Bander alone would do drastic damage to this corridor; if forest clearance was given for the rest of the coal blocks, TATR would effectively be cut off on the northern side as well.

COAL’S 20 YEAR LEGACY

Coal mining is not new to Chandrapur. The first coal mines in the region started operating in the late 1980s. The last 10 years, however, have seen an exponential increase in mining, as India’s thirst for electricity grows, and we worsen our addiction to dirty fossil fuels. Since the year 2000, over 2,558 ha. of forest land has been diverted for coal mining in Chandrapur district alone. The bulk of this forest land was tiger habitat, either permanent or transient, aside from being used by other wildlife.

The Durgapur Deep mine lies close to the buffer of the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve. Tigers have been reported in this area. Western Coalfields Ltd. hopes to expand this mine further, which will mean encroachment into forest land. Credit:Dhiraj Singh/Greenpeace

A look at satellite imagery reveals the stark outcome of coal’s 20-year legacy – TATR is rapidly becoming an island, surrounded on all sides by mines. Where mines have not made inroads, human settlements, dams and canals pose a similar threat. Bander and other coal blocks will cut the reserve off on the north. To the west, human settlements and highways ensure that wildlife movement is nigh impossible, and there is little forest left here. On the south-western side, any possible forest corridor has already been destroyed by the mines in the Wani area. Padmapur, Durgapur, Chinchpalli and other blocks are gradually pinching off connection to the south, the Human dam (recently received Stage II forest clearance) and Gosekhurd canal (see page 63) will destroy forest corridors to the northeast. The future does not look good for Tadoba’s tigers, as isolation of this sort will mean the stagnation of the reserve’s tiger population.

The public enterprise Western Coalfields Limited, (a subsidiary of Coal India) runs most of the mines in this region. The WCL official that we met in Chandrapur seemed to think that India has to choose either tigers or electricity, it cannot have both. A shocking statement for WCL to make, especially when the reality is not quite so binary and feasible alternatives exist (see box on facing page). To continue our reliance on fossil fuels, when extracting that fuel means destroying large forested areas that wildlife and communities depend on, is irresponsible, to put it mildly. It is my fear that the story of Chandrapur is being repeated elsewhere across the Central Indian landscape, which is where India’s largest coal reserves happen to lie. The fact that this is also the largest contiguous tiger habitat in the world is just an inconvenient fact for the Ministry of Coal.

As you read this, the Group of Ministers deliberating on coal supply (under the Chairmanship of Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee) continues its efforts to speed up coal mining, ignoring the National Forest Policy, undermining the Forest Conservation Act and the Forest Rights Act. The MoEF’s “go” and “no go” policy has been drastically watered-down, doubtless because it threatened some very powerful forces. And forests across central India continue to be sacrificed for the minerals that lie beneath them.

There is, however, room for hope. In 2009, the city of Chandrapur, led by a phalanx of local NGOs including EcoPro and Green Planet Society, united in opposition against the Adani’s Lohara coal mine, and ensured that their voices were heard in New Delhi. They are equally adamant that the Bander and Chinchpalli mines will not be allowed to come up, and vow to fight, to the bitter end, any other mine proposed in wildlife habitats. Perhaps we are seeing the beginning of the end of coal mining in Chandrapur, and the start of struggles to protect central India’s forests from the coal industry.

Readers who have information on other coal mines (operational or proposed) disrupting tiger/wildlife habitats are requested to contact the author at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

The report of the fact finding mission is available at http://www.greenpeaceindia.org/

By Ashish Fernandes, Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXXI No. 6, December 2011

 
 
 

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