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10 Jan 2020: The Hindu Editorial Analysis

1) On Australia wildfires: A continent on fire

  • Australia’s catastrophic fire season that began in August last year is unprecedented, and has caused large scale destruction, mainly in New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland. 
  • Fire is no stranger to the dry continent’s woodlands, but the inferno this time has devastated over 10 million hectares of land, killing at least 25 people and tens of millions of animals, besides forcing the evacuation of entire communities.
  • Shocking images of kangaroos burnt in their tracks as they tried to flee and koalas desperately escaping the fire are indelibly imprinted in the consciousness of people around the world. 
  • This is a moment of reckoning for Australia. The government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has sought to downplay the impact of changing climate, is struggling to pacify angry citizens who are calling for a reconsideration of the country’s relationship with fossil fuels. 
  • Warnings have been sounded by scientists that even with a global average temperature rise of 1°C, the raging fires have engulfed an area the size of Switzerland. 
  • In a world set to warm at least half a degree more in coming decades, Australia’s encounters with devastating fires could become more frequent, perhaps even once in eight years, making large parts of the continent uninhabitable. 
  • The current fire season presents a cross-roads, and a wise choice would be to move to a greener future, one that strengthens an already diverse economy through innovation.

  • As scientists have been pointing out for years, the coal industry has a sway over politics in Australia that is disproportionate to its share of economic production. This was evident when Mr. Morrison held up a big piece of the black rock in Parliament in a gesture to highlight its economic importance. 
  • The display may have reassured the mining industry, which has torpedoed a profits tax in the past, but it shocked researchers who worry about greenhouse gas emissions increasing in Australia, and in countries to which it exports the fuel.
  • Credentialled specialists at the country’s Climate Council have had to crowdsource funds to continue their work after the official Climate Commission was shut down by the government six years ago. 

  • Today, they are raising the alarm over the lowest ever rainfall recorded in parts of NSW and Queensland, and high peak temperatures, producing a tinderbox effect across the large Murray-Darling Basin. 
  • The situation is bound to worsen without policy change, as temperatures are predicted to soar to 50°C. Over the past half century, the number of hot days and very hot days each year have steadily increased. 
  • It would be tragic if this scientific insight is ignored. Long-term prosperity for Australians and a future for its charismatic animals can be secured only through policies that foster environmental protection.


2) On Cabinet easing mining laws: Mining deep

  • The Centre’s decision to liberalise norms for entry into coal mining and relax regulations on mining and selling coal in the country is significant in many respects. 
  • Amendments to two legacy Acts through the Mineral Laws (Amendment) Ordinance 2020 cleared by the Cabinet on Wednesday will free the sector from restrictions that were inhibiting its development. 
  • This will open up the coal mining sector completely, enabling anyone with finances and expertise to bid for blocks and sell the coal freely to any buyer of their choice. 
  • Until now there were restrictions on who could bid for coal mines - only those in power, iron and steel and coal washery business could bid for mines - and the bidders needed prior experience of mining in India. 
  • This effectively limited the potential bidders to a select circle of players and thus limited the value that the government could extract from the bidding. Second, end-use restrictions inhibited the development of a domestic market for coal. 
  • The ordinance essentially democratises the coal industry and makes it attractive for merchant mining companies, including multinationals such as BHP and Rio Tinto, to look at India. 

  • The move was overdue considering that the country spent a huge ₹1,71,000 crore in coal imports last year to buy 235 million tonnes; of that, 100 million tonnes was not substitutable, as the grade was not available in India, but the balance 135 million tonnes could have been substituted by domestic production had it been available.
  • Large investment in mining will create jobs and set off demand in critical sectors such as mining equipment and heavy commercial vehicles. The country may also benefit from infusion of sophisticated mining technology, especially for underground mines, if multinationals decide to invest. 
  • However, for that to happen, the government needs to do more such as whittling the time taken for approvals of mining leases and also easing the procedures for clearances.
  • The test would come when 46 producing mines, whose leases expire in March, come up for bidding shortly. The opening up of coal mining effectively ends Coal India’s (CIL) monopoly status. 
  • Coal Minister Pralhad Joshi took care to emphasise that CIL has been and will be allotted adequate blocks and that it will be supported and the interests of labourers will be taken care of. 
  • The company has been set a target of one billion tonnes production by 2023-24 - last year, it produced 606 million tonnes. CIL is a Maharatna PSU and tremendous public resources have been invested in the company over the years. 
  • While opening up the coal mining sector, the govt. must protect the interests of Coal India. It is the government’s responsibility to ensure that CIL is not compromised the way BSNL has been by the opening up to private players. 
  • The company employs about three lakh people, is listed and is a national asset. It has to be nurtured even as private players are welcomed.