The power crisis has been hitting India hard this summer. And to address one of the primary causes of the crisis — coal shortage — the government has eased environmental approvals for coal mine expansions. With the new regulations, the existing sites will be able to raise coal production by a further 10 per cent without requiring new environmental impact assessments. Even the rules on consulting local residents have been loosened. This comes after the Coal Ministry has flagged “huge pressure on domestic coal supply.” According to a notification by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) issued on May 7, the coal mines can now increase their production capacity to an additional 50 per cent within the same mine lease area. Earlier they were granted an expansion of 40 per cent without the need for a public hearing. Additionally, the mines will not require a revised environment impact assessment (EIA) or public consultation. The new changes in mining coal will last for the next six months. The shortages in coal and fuel supply to the power plants amid increasing demand for electricity owing to the scorching heatwaves have triggered hours-long blackouts. The electricity demand has already touched record highs even before the summer has peaked in most parts of the country, as per government data. On top of it, the power plants haven’t been able to generate adequate power, with many operating with critical reserves of fuel. While the residential units have been suffering, the small and large industrial units which are already going through a pandemic-hit economic crisis, have taken to the streets protesting against power outages that have led them to become dysfunctional. The situation spiralled out of control when the state-run utilities in Gujarat and Tamil Nadu were left with no option but to buy power at a higher cost, in order to avoid load shedding. A Reuters report last month predicted: “India is likely to face more power cuts this year as utilities' coal inventories are at the lowest pre-summer levels in at least nine years and electricity demand is expected to rise at the fastest pace in at least 38 years.” Coal accounts for nearly 75 per cent of the country’s electricity production, and with the country’s coal mines and transportation infrastructure failing to keep pace with the rising demand for fuel in the power plants, many state governments have lodged their complaints with the Centre. On the other hand, the miners, including Centre’s Coal India, have complained about the long-winding procedures for environmental clearances in mining more coal and increasing the output. This, they say, could hamper efforts to ease the power shortage. The government has instructed the miners to accelerate output before the onset of monsoon, which will be in late June in most states with large reserves of coal. The rains could flood the mines and slow down the mining operations, thereby bringing down productivity. However, the question now is the feasibility of such operations in the already-battered environment. The greens are seeing red over the new regulations and diluting the environmental clearances. The efforts, they say, will ultimately prove counter-productive. Sunil Dahiya, an analyst with the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air contends that the coal shortage is an outcome of poor planning. “This is not a standalone action taken to dilute EIA guidelines; this has been happening in the country since years in different ways by the current government under the garb of doing business. Now, it’s using the ill-narrated power crisis to open up new mines whereas the ground reality is that the crisis is not happening due to shortage of coal but the failure of power plants in maintain stocks,” he alleges. “Policymakers think such exemptions bring ease of doing business, whereas the reality is exactly the opposite. It’s a very myopic vision by the environment regulator,” he further adds, as per a report in the Economic Times. Bypassing public consultation risks would end up creating friction between miners and local communities, which can lead to protests and legal challenges, further delaying and hampering the process. To tackle this, the environmentalists opine that the government could deploy other interventions that could be prioritised to tide over the crisis. “Any investment in thermal assets or at any stage of value chain like coal mining will lock in investment for 25-30 years or even more. India should invest its limited financial resources in developing cleaner technologies which are cheaper and achieve its other developmental objectives of high economic growth and energy security,” says Vibhuti Garg, India lead at Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA). While India has committed to strengthening the clean energy sources at the Climate Change summits, the reality on the ground seems to be too slow to meet the burgeoning demands. Between extracting more coal to address the power shortage and preserving the environment, does India really have a choice? The ship seems to have sailed long ago, as per Bittu Sahgal, editor of Sanctuary Asia. “Such power problems were anticipated over a decade ago, as were the water shortages and the climate extremes that have begun to overwhelm us. Pushing coal to solve the problem is like digging a deeper hole to find a way out of a self-dug deep hole. We are in the incompetent hands of myopic planners,” he fumes. The country has very limited options right now. And the successive governments and policymakers over the past decades have no one but themselves to blame for not gauging the nature and the extent of the beast.