Challenging India’s Coal Expansion

While there is no doubt that we need energy, it should not come at the cost of ravaging ancient forests, which are 10 times older than the technology of burning coal

Those who disagree with these views, should perhaps take a second opinion from the people who live near a thermal power plant. Or better still, they should enquire with the locals of a coal mine area, or with the displaced community that once lived on the land which is now a coal mine. Or perhaps talk to the health workers near a coal field.

If only we could have known from the numerous trees that were cut down to clear a land for coal mining; the many livestock that depended on the forests for their survival; the countless animals which were forced to leave their habitat and find a new shelter. Or the thousands of communities that still depend on these livestock and forests for their sustenance. Or from the many families who stand to lose their livelihoods of picking mahua flowers and firewood from these forests.

For those who still disagree, I have a question. Should we consciously choose to cut down on the last bit of dense green forest cover to mine coal? To what lengths can one go to cut down forests that are 10 times older than the technology of burning coal itself? In our quest to produce electricity, have we forgotten that mankind cannot reproduce a 1,000-year-old ecology? Why does our energy security have to be dependent on coal at all?

India is touted as the second major growing economy in the world. It is also the third largest consumer of fossil fuel in the world. The Planning Commission of India is of the view that coal availability will be a major constraint in the future. In light of the crippling power outage that plunged half the nation into absolute darkness a few months ago, the next worrisome issue for this industry is coal availability. Existing thermal power plants are already working below their full capacity and the Centre has failed to assure them of future supplies citing non-availability of coal. This scenario shifts the focus on Coal India Limited.

Already under pressure for capacity addition after the 10th and 11th Plan, CIL got itself embroiled in one of the largest scams in the history after Independence — Coalgate. Despite advancing production schedules in ongoing projects, coal availability still remains dismal. This invariably increases the pressure to release new coal blocks to increase the depleting coal supply.

The tragedy at this juncture is that nearly 80 per cent of our coal reserves lies in central India, below the thick dense forest cover. Central India is also home to the largest tiger population and to approximately half of India’s Scheduled Tribes population, most of whom are forest-dependent. Singrauli is known as India’s coal capital, and therefore, the energy capital of India. Singrauli is also turning out to be India’s Minamata — which tells the tragic tale of the worst industrial mercury poisoning in a Japanese fishing village, resulting in debilitating nervous conditions among the residents. Here in Singrauli, from open mines to fly ash, every part of the coal mining process is a problem area. Children are sick, the environment is polluted beyond repair, and the old have given up hope of being treated. It has been found that mercury, a deadly toxin in coal, is slowly entering people’s homes, food, water and even blood.

Generating electricity from coal is a very water-intensive process. Increase in thermal power plants will reduce our water supply drastically. On the other hand, our energy production would still have a heavy carbon footprint with increased environmental damages. Coal has public health implications, contributes heavily to climate change and is not a wise choice for our energy security. Yet India insists on increasing our coal dependency. The question remains: Development at what cost? The gap between the demand and supply of coal is widening, resulting in increased coal imports. CIL may boast of being the country’s largest coal miner. But with negligible benefits to show and little interest in changing the situation, the Power Ministry has coal soot smeared all over its face.

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© Peter Caton/Greenpeace. All rights reserved.

Time is running out. We need electricity. We need development too. We also want our animal population and forest cover to remain intact. With the need to adopt newer technologies and increase our priorities towards alternative sources of energy, the road ahead for India is tough. Difficult, but certainly not something which would be impossible to embark upon.

India needs to decide. What does it value more: Its coal or its communities? Its coal or its forests? Its coal or its endangered species? If coal is the only way we can develop, then the cost of development is dirty and dangerous. And for those who still have doubts, I’d want to ask them: What would they do if, tomorrow, our Government discovered a coal field right below their home?

(This article has been published as an oped in The Pioneer, dated Monday, 21st Jan’2013)

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