The Indian government’s push to increase coal production to 1 billion tons in response to power shortages has sparked a protest march by tribal villagers from forested areas for coal mining. But their voices are being drowned out by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s green messages, obscuring India’s dark addiction to coal.
Hundreds of tribal villagers launched a long protest march against the government’s plans for a major coal mining expansion on their lands on October 2, a major holiday in India that marks the birth of Mahatma Gandhi.
“This land is our land! This land is our land! “the men and women sang in Hindi as they navigated forest areas, village trails, and state and national highways on a 300-kilometer (186-mile) walk to make their voices heard.
– Alok Shukla (@alokshuklacg) October 5, 2021
The villagers, from the indigenous or Adivasi communities of India, come from the Hasdeo area in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, one of the largest contiguous stretches of dense forest on the subcontinent, which is rich in biodiversity and wildlife, including the elephant corridors that are critical to afforestation.
But the Hasdeo Arand forest is also rich in charcoal, and it’s a resource that India doesn’t seem to have enough of these days.
Earlier this week, India’s energy and energy minister raised the alarm when he warned of an acute shortage of coal stocks. Monsoon-caused floods of domestic coal mines, coupled with a global energy crisis that sent coal prices skyrocketing due to increased demand from China, had seen a reduction in coal imports from India. There were power outages at the store, Minister RK Singh warned.
“It’s going to be a tap and go,” he said.
The crisis comes as one of the world’s fastest growing economies emerges from the pandemic with dizzying energy demand.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made self-reliance a central pillar of his pandemic recovery plan. In a televised speech last year, Modi pledged to oversee an economic “quantum leap” so that “India can be self-sufficient.”
But critics warn that this leap is taking place behind the backs of India’s most marginalized groups at enormous environmental cost and with few social safeguards.
Boost coal production to 1 billion tons
Coal still accounts for almost 70 percent of India’s electricity generation. While the world’s third-largest greenhouse gas emitter is committed to the transition to renewable energy, India’s quantum and self-sustaining growth will be driven largely by the ‘dirtiest fossil fuel’.
On the international stage, Modi promotes Mahatma Gandhi’s doctrine of a “trusteeship of the planet with a duty to care for it.” But even as UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres advocates an end to the “deadly addiction to coal,” the Modi administration is committed to an aggressive expansion of coal production to 1 billion tons by 2024.
And while Modi’s ecological commitments and speeches make headlines, the national media overlooks the increase in charcoal production in rural areas under pressure to “follow the line of the Hindu nationalist government,” according to Reporters Without Borders, with expressions of dissent treated as “anti-national”.
Much of India’s increased charcoal production will come from the central and eastern states of Orissa, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, where Adivasi communities live in areas rich in biodiversity and wildlife.
“Nationwide, there are 55 new coal mines planned and there are expansion plans for 193 existing mines. Eighty percent of the new expansion is on Adivasi land and they are going to bear the brunt, ”said Jo Woodman, principal investigator at Survival International, a UK-based tribal rights group.
Mining companies enter an area that was once protected
The Adivasi communities of the Hasdeo Arand Forest have been waging a decades-long struggle to protect their ancestral lands and way of life, which is guided by indigenous belief systems that place spiritual value on every feature of the forests, from fruits and flowers to the grains and seeds that support their livelihoods.
Once designated as a “no-go area” that was off-limits to mining, the Hasdeo Arand forest status has been constantly undermined by complex legal and administrative maneuvers by successive governments and state agencies that award major contracts.
In the absence of foreign contract buyers in a contracting sector plagued by regulations on environmental authorization and land ownership issues, offers for coal blocks have been picked up by private Indian corporations.
In 2011, India’s then Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh cleared three blocks of coal in the no-mining zone. They were “clearly on the fringes” of the Hasdeo Arand forest, Ramesh told reporters. “But they are the first and last” to open up to mining, he promised.
Those were the infamous last words, according to Woodman. “Since then there has been a weakening and auctions, and there is more mining to come due to the lack of a policy to protect those areas and pressure from mining companies,” he said.
Corporations get contracts, Adivasis bear the costs
In 2013, the Adani Group, one of the largest and richest companies in India, had started coal production at the Parsa East-Kente Basan (PEKB) mine in Hasdeo. Since then, the Modi government has approved more mines, putting forests and villagers at risk, according to activists.
In a statement issued at the beginning of the last 300-kilometer march to Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh state, the Hasdeo protest leaders claimed that the Modi government “has illegally assigned seven coal mines in our region to companies from the state government. State governments, in turn, appointed Adani to develop and exploit these blocks. “
The Adani Group, led by the country’s second-richest man, Gautam Adani, has come under international media scrutiny since environmentalists and indigenous rights activists in Australia began a campaign against the group’s Carmichael coal mine in Queensland.
Noting the close ties between Adani and Modi, the Financial Times reported last year that, “Since Mr. Modi took office, Mr. Adani’s net worth has increased by approximately 230 percent to more than $ 26 billion, as it won government tenders and built infrastructure projects throughout the country. “
As the government tries to accelerate growth by increasing resource extraction, critics point out that the concentration of capital in a few favored hands comes at the expense of minority rights and national welfare.
“The Adivasis are seen as superstitious, primitive, backward, their connection to the land is despised and their lives and lands are treated as disposable. They are expected to bear the costs of this massive increase in coal mining in the so-called national interest, which is considered as lucrative as possible for private Indian companies, ”Woodman said.
In recent decades, the climate change crisis has disrupted the modernization model of heavy industrialization and resource extraction fueled by cheap fossil fuels such as coal. But for countries like India, China and Brazil that are trying to lift millions of their citizens out of poverty, an environmentally sustainable alternative to growth remains prohibitively expensive.
As the international community prepares for the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, environmentalists believe the focus should be on helping developing countries shift towards a greener modernization model.
“Rich countries have to step up and help India get off coal and get on the road to a true green transition,” Woodman said. “What is concerning is that Modi appears to be hiding behind this green facade and promoting himself as a green leader as we approach the COP26 discussions. But at the same time, it’s hugely pushing coal, and that’s just not viable in the world we live in today. “