Reclaiming Indian Mines

By A.M. Shah
Contributing Author, Cornerstone

Unlike much of the world, India is expecting fast growth in the near term—in the second quarter of 2015, the country reported GDP growth at a rate of 7%. The country registered US$31 billion in foreign direct investment in FY15—up 27% over the previous year.1 Most in the current federal government believe that India’s economy will grow by as much as 9% by 2019. In addition to this projected economic growth, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s “Make In India” campaign—an initiative to push domestic manufacturing2—will require India to have access to reliable energy, which is underpinned by recent mining-sector growth of 4% and electricity growth of 3.2%.3 Based on the country’s resources, the largest component of India’s energy makeup will have to be coal—principally from domestic sources (coal capacity currently stands at about 168 GW).4

Pond created at a newly-reclaimed mining site in India.

Pond created at a newly-reclaimed mining site in India.

Even as the country increases coal production, India’s leaders
are under pressure to reduce the environmental impact from the production and use of coal and other energy sources. Minimizing the impact of mining on the environment during and after mining practices is a critical component of protecting the environment. This means that ecological reclamation of mining land in backfilled and overburden dump areas, plantation in and around mines, avenue plantation, and restoration of flora and fauna must become more widespread and receive increased oversight in India.


In FY15 (ending March 2015), India’s principal coal mining company, Coal India Limited (CIL), produced about 494 Mt,5 with total coal production in India at 624 Mt—85% of this was from opencast mines. In the same fiscal year, CIL also reported a growth of 10.5% in moving overburden—the rock or soil that overlies the coal deposit and must be removed to mine—and an increase in coal production of 32 Mt (7%). CIL projects that it will further increase production by at least 60 Mt in FY16.6 India has also re-auctioned 20 coal mines to private-sector players with more slated to be auctioned in the near future—these are also opencast mines. Land reclamation is increasingly important as India’s coal production grows. However, successfully reclaiming mining lands is an area in which India has much room to improve, despite some headway of late.


Progress on coal mine reclamation began as early as FY08, when all CIL subsidiaries were asked to reverse local environmental impact after completion of mining activities. This increased attention to reclamation was in response to public sentiment regarding the poor state of land post-mining in the country.

For its part, CIL has made some progress. In FY15, out of CIL’s 617 km2 of mine leasehold area in 50 opencast projects monitored in 2014–15, the total excavated area was 356 km2.7 Of this, 165 km2 has been planted (i.e., biologically reclaimed), 116.69 km2 has been or is being technically reclaimed (i.e., backfilled), while 75 km2 is still being actively mined.7

Green space surrounding a former CIL mine

Green space surrounding a former CIL mine

Despite this progress, there is still an underlying issue with land reclamation in India. It remains a low priority and, in some cases, progress has been slow, stalled, or has not started in earnest. For example, some previously mined lands have been designated as critical since 2010. Efforts are slated to reverse the lost green space, but, by any standards, progress has been slow.

Notably, there is hardly any agriculture on reclaimed land, even though India is in need of increased agricultural production. However, agriculture on reclaimed land can only be successful if the topsoil overburden is conserved based on scientific standards.

There is also some controversy about the validity of claims made about reclamation. As of the end of FY15, CIL claimed to have planted nearly 83 million trees in around 34,945 hectares of reclaimed land, increasing green cover by 85 hectares in 50 opencast mines, with 685 hectares of land fully reclaimed. However, these figures have been disputed. While CIL has demonstrated that the overburden pile height has been reduced (due to reclamation efforts), in some places Google Maps has revealed a lack of green cover where the company had claimed it had already planted trees. Investigations continue into why this is the case.8

Increased oversight is required, as a 2010 audit found poor performance on CIL’s mine reclamation efforts. The auditors inspected 18 mines and concluded that overburden was not stacked safely in 10 mines and the plantation density was also far below expected norms.9 In addition, the audit found that most of the mines did not restore topsoil properly and CIL subsidiaries had a backlog of over 12,000 hectares of land filling and technical reclamation.10

To facilitate better monitoring, the Central Mine Planning and Design Institute constituted an internal Geomatics division equipped with technologies including remote sensing, GIS, GPS, digital photo-grammetry, LiDAR, and terrestrial and mine surveys. The data gathered is also shared with the mine operator (e.g., CIL in the case of most coal mines), along with the department of forestry of the concerned state, and an officer of the Ministry of Environment. This technology will allow improved monitoring of land reclamation activities and, thus, will hopefully increase the ability to manage reclaimed green space.

With India’s hunger for domestic coal increasing, there is an increased focus on abandoned mines that could be reopened to extract additional coal. CIL is offering majority stakes to private-sector miners, especially from the conglomerates, to extract the remaining coal.11 Unfortunately, these mines have historically been abandoned without reclamation, and many of them may be damaged beyond repair. Ministry of Environment officials, along with their counterparts in the Ministry of Coal, are gathering data on the existing damage, and attempting to map out approaches to reduce the environmental impact, before allowing CIL or any other operator to restart any mining operations.


Currently, CIL is required to provide funds for planting saplings and, under the provisions of compensatory afforestation, the forest conservation agencies of the respective states carry out the planting. However, previously processes may have been hindered by a lack of coordination between the agencies at federal and provincial levels. The current government is focused on making the state agencies bigger stakeholders, and has thus allowed them to retain royalties from the mines recently auctioned and also participate in subsequent decision-making about the mines in their jurisdiction.

Meanwhile, to extract more coal and increase the use of modern mining technologies, India is moving toward encouraging other miners and reducing reliance on CIL, and has already advanced some enabling legal provisions. The policy, which is expected to bring in new players and subsequently regulate them, may be fully enacted by end of FY16 or beginning of FY17.12 In the interim, the country’s leaders need to make clear the priority of land reclamation, including afforestation. Currently there are no standards, and no policy, to push private players and no penal provision if an operator violates the norms.

In May, Minister Javadekar placed the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill, 2015 in the lower house of Parliament (Lok Sabha), seeking to establish funds at the national and state levels to receive money collected for compensatory afforestation.13 The Ministry of Coal is also going through the final draft of the Coal Regulatory Authority Bill, which may be tabled soon, to closely monitor the land reclamation process and give penalties to those miners in violation. If increased reclamation slows production in the country, it is possible that more imports may be necessary, at least in the near term.

A greater role for local government in reclamation efforts could lead to reclaimed land being maintained, such as the park above.

A greater role for local government in reclamation efforts could lead to reclaimed land being maintained, such as the park above.


Unquestionably reclamation efforts in India face challenges, but there is reason for optimism. The largest opencast mine in Asia now serves as an example of CIL’s improvement in its reclamation efforts.

After a two-hour drive down a bumpy road from the railway station in Bilaspur (Chattisgarh state’s second largest city), one arrives at the Gevra mine, operated by South Eastern Coalfields Limited (SECL), a wholly owned subsidiary of CIL. The mine is spread over about 19 km2 and is the single largest source of thermal coal in India. It has the potential to extract 45 Mt annually and has produced 400 Mt since it became operational in 1981. An estimated 10 billion tonnes of reserves remain. If extracted successfully, the remaining reserves could fire all India’s existing coal-fired power plants for the next decade.14 The amount of coal that can be mined economically is less than the total reserves, but the Gevra mine can be considered a major production site for the near- and medium-term future.

One of the pits, where shovels and dumpers were busy extracting coal a few years ago, now hosts a lake. According to officials (with whom I spoke), migratory birds have started visiting the lake, and reptiles and other animals high on the food chain have been spotted among the surrounding vegetation.

Located at the heart of Indian coal reserves, the Gevra mine is neighbored by Northern Coalfields Limited’s Singrauli mine in Madhya Pradesh and other coal mines in Jharkhand—an area that also hosts various mine-mouth power plants. Recently, Gevra has begun using the fly ash from many of these power plants as a fill, in addition to backfill using the original overburden. Company officials at the site say most of the areas no longer being mined were reclaimed within the first year of reclamation activities.

In 2008, the first year in which its reclamation efforts were documented, SECL reclaimed 6.06 km2, in comparison to 2.43 km2 in FY03.15 The new landscapes include parks, lakes, and green shrubs, and most of the trees planted are in mangroves.

With Gevra in expansion mode, set to extract 10 Mt more coal annually, the mine will be required to break and remove 1267 million m3 of overburden.15 Later, this can be used for reclamation. SECL is also reclaiming 159 km2 of land at their 10 mines,7 the largest amount of any CIL subsidiary after Northern Coalfields Limited (NCL). NCL is undertaking land reclamation in their 10 mines covering a 174-km2 area.7

While prominent, the Gevra mine and SECL’s efforts around reclamation serve as just one example of the reclamation work of CIL and its subsidiaries. In fact, in FY16 CIL is undertaking land reclamation at 50 large mines and 113 smaller ones. Although the actual effectiveness of these reclamation efforts is currently under investigation by the federal government and has become a point of contention when considering future mining activities, there is no question that reclamation has improved since earnest efforts began in 2008.

This image, taken in 2010, is of a pond created during one of CIL’s earlier reclamation projects.

This image, taken in 2010, is of a pond created during one of CIL’s earlier reclamation projects.


India will continue to rely on coal for the foreseeable future. Improving reclamation around the country by building on the progress made to date is essential to reducing mining’s environmental footprint. Even as oversight is being increased, those charged with reclamation may benefit from increased participation in international working groups on the topic, in order to make reclamation in India more efficient and more successful. Numerous successful opencast mine reclamations are underway or completed around the world. India’s mining sector has an opportunity to increase the success of reclamation practices in the country by building on lessons learned and best practices abroad. With a goal of producing one billion tonnes per year domestically, now is the time for India’s mining companies, especially CIL, to place an emphasis on effective reclamation.


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The content in Cornerstone does not necessarily reflect the views of the World Coal Association or its members.
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