When asked where the coal blocks will come up, the forest officer draws a clover-shaped map. Take the right at the traffic intersection, he says, and you will enter Pathriya Dand coal block. Keep going for 11 km and the road turns to the left, which is where Gidhmudi coal block is. Come back to the main road, cross over to the other side, and you will enter Madanpur North.

Keep moving south through it, and you will reach Madanpur South in 15 minutes. There is Parsa, to the north of Madanpur North. And Sagbadi to the south of the Madanpur blocks.

That is six coal blocks within touching distance of each other. We are at Hasdeo Arand — one of the last remnants of the great forests that once covered much of central India. Between 2003 and 2009, while allotting coal blocks to companies for captive use, the coal ministry, without so much as a consultation with the environment ministry, allotted as many as 16 blocks in and around this forest.

When the block awardees approached the environment ministry for clearance, this ominous intrusion into pristine forests for coal mining was one of the triggers for Jairam Ramesh, the minister in 2010, to introduce the concept of ‘go’ and ‘no go’ areas for mining — essentially, half of the reserved forests were out of bounds for industry. He refused to clear several of these 16 blocks. Both ministries occupied entrenched positions.

Ramesh said Hasdeo Arand was too good a forest to lose. The coal ministry pointed to India’s coal shortage. Since that face-off, environment has a new minister. The ministry has allowed mining in two-thirds of the forest areas in nine coalfields and is under pressure from the coal ministry to scrap the no-go concept and open up the remaining one-third too.

As India starts handing out coal blocks again, a process marred by crony capitalism and state discretion the last time around, the question arises: must our forests, already in terminal quantitative and qualitative decline, be sacrificed for coal? In mid-2012, Alok Perti, the coal secretary between 2011 and 2012, told ET: “India has to decide whether she wants electricity or tigers.” Adds BK Agarwal, who heads Godavari Ispat, a sponge iron company in Ranchi whose captive block in Hasdeo Arand is awaiting a green nod: “India has 700,000 sq km of forests. The total mining area is just 21,000 sq km. If we say no power plant, there will be darkness in the country. Read more