In a landmark judgment in September 2014, the Supreme Court declared that the procedure of allocating coal blocks since 1993 was arbitrary and illegal. The verdict gave impetus to the enactment of the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Act of 2015, which introduced a transparent procedure for block allocations, by giving more power to the public-sector undertakings that were allotted coal blocks, and in turn, ensuring easier regulation of these mines. Among other reforms, the 2015 act limited the role of private companies developing mines with PSUs to that of a “contractor,” which is paid a minimal fee for mining and transportation. However, the prevailing practice has seen this limitation upended with the participation of “mine developer cum operators”—private companies that work with the PSUs and operate in violation of the Supreme Court verdict and subsequent legislative reform.
Sudiep Shrivatsava, a Chhattisgarh-based lawyer and activist, was one of the petitioners in the case before the Supreme Court. In the lead up to the 2014 judgment, Shrivatsava had also raised allegations of illegalities with respect to the environmental clearances received during the allotment processes. In March 2012, a joint venture between Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited, a power corporation of the Rajasthan government, and Adani Enterprises Limited, the flagship company of the Adani Group, was given the permission to raze forests to run a captive coal block situated at the biodiversity hotspot Hasdeo Arand forest, in Chhattisgarh. Soon afterwards, Shrivastava approached the National Green Tribunal to challenge the forest clearance given to them.
Shrivatsava takes up public-interest cases, ranging from violation of environmental laws in mining and industrial projects to political scams. Over a series of conversations, he discussed the impact of the coal scam and subsequent changes in the country’s coal mining policy with Nileena MS, a reporting fellow at The Caravan. According to Shrivatsava, the allocation of coal blocks under the BJP-led government is no better than what it was under the Congress-led government. “PSUs are entering into ‘Mine Development Operators’ agreements with private companies in such a manner that the private company is operating the mine,” he said. “Selection of a private ‘contractor’ by PSUs smacks of corruption and nepotism.”
Nileena MS: What impact did the Supreme Court’s 2014 judgment and subsequent legislations to regulate coal mining have on the coal sector in India?
Sudiep Shrivatsava: The deallocation of coal blocks has not brought the coal production in the country to a halt. As I had stated in my intervention petition in the coal case, the production from these private mines was less than ten percent of the coal production in India—only 46 million out of 550–600 million at that time. It was never going to have such an effect.