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Tigers or Coal? India Makes a Choice

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"You need to choose if you want tigers or you want electricity -- you can't have both," said a senior member of India's coal establishment to Ashish Fernandes of Greenpeace India. The retort appears to be the Indian government's stock response to concerns that its planned expansion of coal mining is so immense that it could render extinct the tiger population of central India. Absent significant investment in renewable energy sources, the country's use of coal for electricity production is projected to double or triple by 2030 Greenpeace estimates that mining all this coal will entail the loss of 10,000 square kilometers of surviving forests, close to 40 percent of which is tiger habitat.

The Royal Bengal Tiger is India's national animal, and the country spends 1.2 billion rupees (currently $20 million) each year on Project Tiger, its flagship effort to protect the magnificent predator. Despite this expenditure, however, a census counted only 1,706 tigers in 2011, partly because of poaching and trafficking of tiger body parts used in Chinese medicine, but primarily because of declining habitat. Tigers and elephants require vast, unbroken expanses of jungle across which they can roam. As India develops, its forests are becoming fragmented into precarious islands surrounded by mines, roads, towns, power plants and other accoutrements of industrial civilization. Tigers are easily located and poisoned by poachers or they run out of prey; while elephants die in train accidents or, finding their usual migration routes blocked, wander into villages and trample on fields and huts.

The acceleration of coal mining is making a bad situation critical. Ninety percent of the new extraction will come from open-cast mines, which are cheaper and simpler to operate than underground mines but more destructive of forest cover and therefore of wildlife. Although none of the planned mines are in the core areas of designated tiger reserves or other protected areas, several cut into the 10-kilometer buffer zone that India's Supreme Court has mandated around each reserve. Any commercial activity in the buffer zone requires special licenses; but illegal mining, even by government-owned companies, is common. Just as worrisome, the new coal mines will cut off vital corridors connecting the reserves -- which tigers use to find mates and elephants use in their seasonal migrations. If tigers can no longer travel long distances, their gene pools will become isolated and ultimately unviable, causing extinction.

As if that were not enough, these forests also serve as watersheds that feed major rivers and supply vital resources such as tubers, fruits, fish, medicinal plants, and firewood to villagers, tens of thousands of whom will be displaced. Coal-fired power plants, which the new mines will feed, also pollute the air, water, and soil, and are the world's leading driver of climate change -- all of which raises the question of why the Government of India is relying so heavily on this damaging form of energy. The Planning Commission, the country's official think-tank, projects that almost four-fifths of India's electricity will continue to come from coal even in the 2030s, by which time the country will be needing two to three times more coal-fired electricity than it can now produce.

All of India's coal will be finished by then -- a fact that does not appear to worry India's decision-makers. Coal India, the government-owned company that is one of the world's two largest coal miners (a Chinese company, the Shenhua Group, is the other one) is under immense pressure to accelerate mining to supply the country's burgeoning power sector. Recently Coal India announced that it would expand its domestic production from 435 million tons in 2011 to 615 million tons in 2017. Almost all remaining forests in central India will have to be opened up -- spelling the tiger's doom.

Although Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has publicly reiterated the government's support for tiger conservation, Fernandes describes his office as "the root of all evil" when it comes to coal mining. In March 2010 the Ministry of Environment and Forests had released a list of "no-go" areas -- densely forested regions, rich in wildlife, where no coal mining would be permitted -- but the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) subsequently forced it to abandon the concept. "Every time the ministry of environment shows even a little bit of spine, they get browbeaten by the PMO and basically told to clear the project," alleges Fernandes. (Manmohan Singh has also come under fire for giving away publicly owned coal blocks to industrial houses so that they can cheaply supply their power plants, at an estimated loss to the exchequer of $200 billion.)

The initial public offering of Coal India's shares in late 2010 may have triggered the demise of the "no-go" concept, which right away improved the accessibility of the company's reserves. Four global banks, all of which advertise their commitment to sustainability -- Deutsche Bank, Bank of America, Citibank, and Morgan Stanley -- handled the sale of 10 percent of the company's shares for 150 billion rupees (now about $2.5 billion). Coal India is raising further funds for its ambitious expansion by offering another sale of 5 to 10 percent of its shares. The combined efforts of development experts, politicians, and bankers will ensure that in a couple of decades the Royal Bengal Tiger may survive only in cages.