- After about 30 years of operations, the mining activities in Jharkhand’s Piparwar opencast coal mining project, which was spread over 1100 hectares, have stopped.
- The Central Coalfields Limited (CCL), which was operating the opencast mining project, has so far carried out reclamation work in about 272 hectares area including plantation, an eco-park and a few water bodies.
- Land reclamation is an important process of the overall mining process once the minerals from a mine are exhausted and the mine is closed.
The Piparwar opencast mine in Jharkhand was once the largest coal-producing mine in the state and had damaged the local ecology. Now, after about 30 years of mining operations being started, the state-run Central Coalfields Limited (CCL), is carrying out reclamation and restoration in a part of the original mining area, to make it suitable for public use.
The coal mining activities in Piparwar started in 1990 in an area of about 1,120.25 hectares, and around 14 million tonnes of coal was extracted annually before mining activities finished in June 2020. After mining was shut down, the mining company, in accordance with India’s mining laws, decided to reclaim the mined area. The mine was in the Chatra district of Jharkhand, which is nearly 70-kilometres from the state capital Ranchi.
Of the total leasehold area of 1,120.25 hectares, the quarry area of the mines was 540 hectares. Of these 540 hectares, reclamation work is being done in about 272 hectares area and it includes plantation in the majority of this area, a small eco-park (Kayakalp Vatika) and a few water bodies.
Currently, land filling work is being carried out in another 28 hectares area. According to the CCL officials, the rest of the mined area would be re-filled and reclaimed too with plantations.
In operation since 1956, the CCL is a subsidiary of Coal India Limited, which is the world’s single largest coal producer. Currently, it has over 60 operative mines including both opencast and underground mines.
It claims that the “success in land reclamation of mines spoils and afforestation have been very significant and overwhelming in places like Ashoka, Piparwar etc..” It observes that as the mined-out areas are refilled with overburden, which is not very conducive to the growth of plants, the dumped soil is improved in stages to bring back its fertility and the horticultural operations are carried out by adding nutrients, like organic, inorganic and bio¬fertilisers.
It states that since 1992, as part of reclamation, the total plantation done is more than 7.5 million trees covering about 4,740 hectares in all the mining areas of the CCL. Of the 7.5 million, more than 3.7 million trees were planted during the last 10 years.
How reclamation was planned?
In fact, the reclamation work was being planned since 2015 when the then coal minister of India, Piyush Goyal, laid the foundation stone for the development of the eco-park.
“Kayakalp Vatika is a collective effort of the CCL officials to reclaim and restore degraded mining land into greenery and biodiversity hotspot. We planted 2,000 plants of 50 species in the eco-park which has grown from 3 feet to 20 feet now. The park has fruit-bearing trees like guava, java plum, jackfruit and several others. The trees were procured from the forest department. The soil moisture and fertility has increased tremendously following our work,” Sanjay Kumar, area environment officer, Piparwar circle, CCL, told Mongabay-India.
However, the eco-park is only a small part – of around 0.6 hectares – of the 272 hectares of the land reclaimed so far. The CCL is contemplating expanding the area of the eco-park by adding an area of about 20 hectares. The company is even looking at gradually developing such parks in other areas as well.
The reclamation, rehabilitation and restoration work of a mined area involves returning the mined-out land to a useful form but it is not always a single-phase work. It includes filling of the overburden into the quarry void up to the original ground level, spreading of top-soil and plantation over the reclaimed land. It also involves the development of ponds as some areas are unfilled.
The rehabilitation and restoration process also includes taking mitigation measures to improve the land degraded due to mining activities and take it to an acceptable environmental condition. According to the CCL, the development of an eco-park and farming activities are part of the overall restoration process.
Before mining began in the Piparwar project, the total forest area involved was 186.50 hectares (part of the mine’s total area of 1,120 hectares ). Once the mining is done, the forest land is returned to the forest department after the reclamation and restoration process.
“We have already done some plantation in 242 hectares of the reclaimed land that was once a coal pit of about 90-metres depth. The focus is now on the remaining 30 hectares where plantations are being done, eco-park has been developed and three water bodies have been dug. Moreover, farming is also being done through drip irrigation in this land. The initiative has not only helped in turning the area green but has also offered employment opportunities for the local residents,” said Sanjay Kumar of the CCL.
The development of the park has changed the life of some of the locals at least. For instance, 35-year-old Kathputli Devi, from Benti village, about two kilometres away from the Piparwar project site, works as a gardener in the eco-park while her husband works as a labourer.
Her husband’s income alone is not enough to run their family and he spends most of his earnings on alcohol. Kathputli Devi earns around Rs. 7,500 per month from the eco-park which she spends on the education of her four children including two daughters.
“I want them to become something in their life. The income from the park helps me to spend some money on their education and running the house. The eco-park is close to my house and thus saves me from the ordeal of travelling several hours for work. Moreover, while working here I am amid trees giving a breather from the hot and humid weather,” she said.
She is among the four employees including two men who work at the eco-park, which attracts a lot of birds and is frequently visited by locals for recreation.
Mohammad Abbas, 28, a resident of a neighbouring Bahera village in the same district, also praised the project. “We have been living in this area for several years and have seen trucks carry loads of coal leading to dust and pollution. It’s much greener now. We often spend hours inside the park which has tall trees and concrete benches for sitting. We often bring our guests here whenever they visit our homes,” he said.
Can an eco-park be part of the reclamation process?
Though the CCL takes pride in the development of an eco-park, experts differ about it being considered a part of reclamation.
“It would have been better had they converted the reclaimed land into a complete biodiversity hotspot with a minimum access to human beings like the forest allowing only birds and animal sighting with guided tours as done in forests without altering the landscape,” said Jayanta Bhattacharya, chairman, Environmental Science and Engineering, Committee Of Faculty, IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) Kharagpur.
“Public activities should not be allowed and biodiversity should be left completely alone to thrive. In some areas, a corridor should also be built for the animals. Their initiative (eco-park) is more like a recreational spot. While returning the reclaimed land, it should also be kept in mind the area should be more or less unaltered and the kind of species to be re-introduced there,” Bhattacharya told Mongabay-India.
Apart from the eco-park, the CCL officials emphasise that local villagers are also getting livelihood as farming is being done in a small portion of about 30 hectares.
“The farmers now grow wheat and maize in a small part of the reclaimed land which has provided them with a fresh avenue of livelihood. The three water bodies serve as the source of water supply to the farmland and the eco-park. We would also reclaim the entire land where open cast mining has been stopped and would transform it into an environment-friendly zone through such initiatives that have been praised from all quarters,” said Anupam Kumar Rana, who is head of the CCL’s public relations department.
According to the CCL, the mine was in operation till June 2020 and coal transportation is still being carried through the mine. The CCL said that reclamation is a continuous process and will be carried out in the remaining area of the mine as well.
The initiative was also praised by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) in its report as a good practice and good initiative.
Environmentalists caution against unplanned reclamation process
Environmental experts welcomed the reclamation process so far but recommended caution and stated that the company should go for a proper plantation process involving local species.
“It is certainly a good initiative as the neighbourhoods around mining areas are generally polluted and people also face health issues. The CCL has at least tried to decrease the negative impact of pollution through such drives. The water bodies will certainly help … But the CCL needs to keep in mind that plantation has to involve local species only for better survival rate,” noted Nitish Priyadarshi, assistant professor at Ranchi University’s department of geology.
He, in fact, stressed that the plantation might not yield desired results if plant species are brought from outside as they won’t be able to adjust to the local conditions. “It’s the survival of the fittest in such areas,” he added.
Echoing a similar sentiment, the local forest department officials also said that the CCL have to keep certain things in mind about eco-park and the entire reclaimed land where the plantation is being done.
The plantation carried out so far include species like jackfruit, Syzygium cumini (Jamun in India), India gooseberry, tamarind, Bel fruit and mahua among others.
“It could have been better had the CCL done the plantation in close collaboration with the forest department. We would have given them suggestions to do the plantation in a better way,” pointed out Chotte Lal Shah, range forest officer of Tandwa range (in Piparwar) with the Jharkhand forest department.
Shah emphasised that “mere Kayakalp Vatika and plantation is not enough” and “the CCL should create a green belt around the area to ensure that people residing in neighbouring villages are not affected by pollution.”
The area of Piparwar mining comes under the North Karanpura coalfield which is spread across Ranchi, Hazaribag, Chatra and Latehar districts of Jharkhand. The total area of this coalfield, according to the CCL, is around 1,230 square kilometres and has total coal reserves of 13,110.84 million tonnes. The CCL had about 10 mines in this area out of which nine are still active and only Piparwar has been closed.
Sanjay Kumar of the CCL said: “It was a self-initiative by the CCL but now scientists from various institutions have been visiting here. We are taking their suggestions seriously and those would soon be implemented.”
The CCL states that reclamation is a statutory requirement but it is a “subjective term lacking site-specific and need-based approach to reclaim and restore the degraded mining areas.” It said that the eco-park initiative is an attempt to develop a site-specific and need-based approach to reclaim and restore the degraded mining land.
Banner image: A 0.6 hectares eco-park, part of the 272 hectares of the land reclaimed so far by CCL at the 1,120 hectare Piparwar mining project site.