Shishir Arya, TNN NAGPUR: With debate about whether to allow mining in ecologically sensitive areas like tiger habitats still raging, ministry of environment and forests (MOEF) has softened its stance for the public sector miner Western Coalfields Limited (WCL). After deliberating on the issue for almost a year, MOEF has, in April this year, allowed coal mining in the 3 km wide passage dividing Pench and Satpura tiger reserves in Chhindwara district with some restrictions.

The mining has to be only underground and only to expand existing mines. At the same time, the ministry has barred any kind of mining in these areas by private players. Union Minister of Urban Development Kamal Nath, in whose constituency the mines come, had strongly pushed the case with MOEF. The site was visited by director general (wildlife) and special secretary of MOEF before the decision was taken. The WCL had argued that underground mining would not harm the forests above.

MOEF has taken a view that so long no new infrastructure such as underground driveways or other structures on the surface are created, underground mining can proceed. The move may help both WCL and its parent company Coal India Limited ( CIL) inch-up the dropping coal output. A couple blocks having reserves for 22 years located right in middle of the corridor have been permitted.

Environmentalists, however, are very worried. The Satpuda Foundation said that the importance of tiger conservation means it should be given top priority, no matter what the project. Conservationist Gopal Thosar said that although underground mining was less harmful than opencast, it does not totally rule out risk. Despite the claims about using the best technology to mitigate loss, not all the rules are adhered to.

The area is one of the biggest passages for wildlife to move from one forest to another and has 12 coal blocks. MOEF has decided to allow mining in only four, all of which are with WCL. Mining is already operational in three of the blocks.

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