India faces contradiction between drive to industrialize, and need to address severe negative impacts of coal energy

Screen shot 2015-12-09 at 11.04.21 AM“Digging Deeper: The Human Rights Impacts of Coal in the Global South”, a report by the Center for Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia), Columbia, and Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, with offices in London and New York, prepared amidst Paris talks on climate change, says that despite sluggish growth in coal consumption among developed countries and strong advocacy for transitioning away from coal, coal production and use have yet to decline globally. “Much of this has to do with increasing production and demand in the Global South”, it insists. Excerpts on India:

India is the third-largest consumer of coal in the world, generating approximately 80% of its electricity from coal. It is also the third-largest producer with a production of 613 MT of coal in 2013, and the third largest importer, as despite its vast reserves, it needs to compensate for the poor quality of its domestic coal. The high ash content of India’s coal pollutes twice as much as the coal it imports. The government nationalized the coal industry through the establishment of Coal India Limited (CIL) in 1975 to oversee the entire country’s coal mining operations. CIL currently is 80% owned by the government and the remaining 20% is publicly traded. In 1973, the Coal Mines (Nationalization) Act was passed. It consolidated the nationalization of all the mines and determined which companies were eligible to mine coal in India.

Coalmines are spread across fifteen states, with Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand being the top coal producers. This year, after almost 40 years of a state monopoly over coal mining in India, the government of India passed two game-changing laws—the Coal Mines Special Provisions Bill, and the Mines & Minerals Development and Regulation (MMDR) Bill —allowing private companies to mine and sell coal in India. These laws also made way for foreign investment in India’s coal sector. To meet the continuous need for power, Piyush Goyal, Minister of State for Coal, recently pledged to double the use of domestic coal to more than a billion tons by 2019.

Land Rights

Large-scale land acquisitions with grossly inadequate compensation for those displaced, or “land grabs”, are widespread across the country, particularly for mining projects. Both companies and governments at the national and state levels have been accused of acquiring land without the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous communities or the meaningful consultation of affected groups. For example, tribal groups protested at the site of a coal-fired plant being built in Dumka district, Jharkhand, by CESC (part of the RPG Group conglomerate) in 2008 over alleged deprivation of their land.

In a public hearing organized by a retired judge of the Delhi High Court villagers presented affidavits and testimonies with evidence that they had been misled into selling their land, that their signatures on some documents related to their land were coerced, and that some of these documents even appeared to be forged. As a result, some villagers protested, and two were killed in clashes with police. The company insisted that it would use a minimal amount of farmland, and blamed local politicians for misleading members of community into opposing the project.

Welspun Energy reportedly acquired land for a thermal power plant in Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh, “forcibly [and] at a meagre price by creating an atmosphere of fear…with the help of local property dealers, according to a report by Down To Earth and a local NGO coalition, Vindhya Bachao Movement. Responding to these accusations, the company insisted that it had not displaced farmers. Despite these and related environmental concerns, the Government of India approved the project, granting environmental clearances, in 2014.

Reliance Power’s Sasan Coal Power Project in Sasan village, Singrauli district in Madhya Pradesh, built with a loan from the US Import-Export Bank and certified under the United Nations Clean Development Mechanism, has resulted in “forceful evictions, intimidation by police and administration to accept paltry compensation for their lost land and houses, or else…”, with large families resettled into “tiny two room houses” much smaller than their former dwellings, according to a report by Carbon Market Watch. While some of the communities’ members were compensated, many lived in the forest and did not have deeds for their land and therefore did not receive compensation. Some protested the resettlements, but were beaten by local police and arrested; one villager, named Sudarshan, mysteriously disappeared in the night after refusing to vacate his land, and has never been found.

Reliance says the resettlement village is “one of the most robust community development and corporate social responsibility initiatives by a power plant” in India. But the Los Angeles Times, in a report based on dozens of interviews with villagers, found that only a fraction of the 376 small concrete houses it built are occupied, with locals saying the homes are far from jobs and too small for farming.

While these and many other cases present a gloomy picture of land acquisition without protection of affected people’s rights, in some cases plant construction has been halted due to difficulties presented in acquiring land, often caused by local opposition, such as the construction of Damodar Valley Corporation’s Thermal Power Plant at Raghunathpur in West Bengal and the Pakri-Barwadih coal plant in Hazaribagh, Jharkhand. Health impacts of coal mining are widespread, especially respiratory diseases.

For example, people of the villages surrounding the Udupi Power Corporation plant in Karnataka, owned by Adani Power have protested to block further expansion of the plant over ongoing health problems and crop losses attributable to pollution from the plant, and no response from the state government to petitions seeking remedy. Specifically, fly ash spread from uncovered vehicles has resulted in respiratory and other health problems, with a 2012 expert report finding that “all respondents in the core zone complained of serious health problems due to the contaminated air, water and land”, and loss of livelihood for farmers whose crops were damaged by toxic mists from cooling towers, hazardous waste discharges into streams, and other pollution.

A 2013 report for Greenpeace India and two Indian research groups, carried out by a former World Bank official who had overseen the Bank’s work on pollution, attempted to quantify the national health impacts. It found that pollution from coal power plants is causing 80-120,000 premature deaths per year, and as many as 20 million new asthma cases. It concluded that coal-fired energy production, as currently conducted in India, is responsible for “hundreds of thousands of lives [lost]…and millions of asthma attacks, heart attacks, hospitalisations, lost workdays and associated costs…” It also found “adverse impacts are especially severe for the elderly, children, and…the poor [and] minority groups… are likely to be disproportionately exposed to the health risks and costs of fine particle pollution.”

Labor Issues

Mine workers are extremely prone to respiratory diseases including tuberculosis and asthma caused by inhaling coal dust for long periods, with companies failing to follow protocols to minimize coal dust, according to recent news reports. Doctors at some mines acknowledge that they lack the equipment and medicines they need to treat workers. Fatal mine collapses and deaths also occur due to lack of safety protections in the mines and negligence by the owners. A large number of accidents have been reported in Indian coalmines, with CIL alone reporting an average of approximately 55 deaths and 200 serious accidents per year in recent years – and trade unionists insisting that many more worker deaths are never recorded.

Child Labor: Apart from formal, licensed mines operated by large corporations, “rat hole” mines are widespread in India. As the name suggests, these are crudely built, narrow holes, hand-dug from the surface directly to the coal reserve underground. These holes can be as small as two feet in height: workers crawl through them, chipping away coal by hand, day and night. Those operating these mines have found the perfect workers: children. Employment in the mines represents one of the worst forms of child labor. Despite a national ban, children work in rat hole coalmines in the Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya state for 12 hour shifts underground in flip-flops and jeans.

A study estimated 70,000 children work in these mines, most of whom were illegally trafficked from the neighboring countries of Bangladesh and Nepal. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights has confirmed these dangerous conditions. A few years ago, local newspapers reported the discovery of skeletons in the mines, believed to be of child workers. No inquiry was conducted. According to a local NGO, children get trapped and die there, but are not recovered due to lack of means. They also are not reported due to their status as illegal migrants.

A sustained media campaign led the National Green Tribunal to pass a directive in April 2014 completely banning rat hole mining in the state of Meghalaya, but the state is petitioning the national government to permit and recognize informal mining, with improved safety measures.

Poverty & Livelihoods

Despite the fact that coal companies have caused significant generation of employment, they have had major, countervailing detrimental effects on communities which had previously sustained themselves with farming, fishing, hunting and other activities. The Tata Mundra Plant illustrates these contradictions. The World Bank’s International Finance Corporation, which financed the project, touted it for its support to local communities. However, its effects on the Wagher fishing community, a Muslim minority identified as “a socially and educationally backward caste” by the government, in Gujarat contradicts these claims.

According to the report of an independent expert team, the affected communities were not adequately consulted, while the Asian Development Bank Compliance Review Panel found that the fisher folk were excluded from the consultation process during important parts of project planning. The operations of the power plant devastated the community’s livelihood, having salinized fertile land and ground water, and caused both decline in the local fish population, and lasting health effects on the community. With the destruction of their fishing livelihood, the community, with the support of local NGOs, filed lawsuits against the company. In response to the complaint, Tata stated that the issues raised by the Wagher community were not specific to the Mundra Project but in fact were issues regarding Gujarat’s coastline. Tata also insisted that it had a healthy working relationship with the community.

Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, the states with the richest minerals in India and contain 40% of the country’s coal reserves, also are two of the country’s five poorest states. In a 2013 mining disaster at the Kulda opencast coal mine, operated by a CIL subsidiary in the Basundhara-Garjanbahal region in Odisha, 14 local villagers were killed and many were injured. The accident was a result of the height of the coal dump, which was above the stipulated limits. The victims were not authorized workers but people from a nearby community with very little economic activity; their livelihoods depended on scavenging coal from these mines. Since the mine company did not technically employ any of these villagers, their families were not given any compensation for the deaths. The management claimed that the locals were informed beforehand about the potential threat of venturing in the area. The local people claimed otherwise.

What Lies Ahead

Loss of livelihood as a result of mining, due to deprivation of lands and harm to crops and natural resources without alternate work or means of subsistence, produces a trap of extreme poverty, leaving affected communities with few if any alternatives, and leading some to undertake life-threatening activities like illegally scavenging coal.

India faces contradictions between the drive to develop and industrialize, and the need to address the severe negative impacts of coal energy. In making major decisions on these questions, vulnerable populations’ rights must be put back at the forefront. Given that good laws are often on the books, but enforcement is largely lacking, civil society organizations have been addressing governance gaps, raising communities’ awareness, and organizing them to collectively claim their rights. It is crucial that a space be created for communities and their advocates to meaningfully participate in decisions that affect their lives.

Click HERE to download the full report

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