India workshop and field trip (Jan-Feb 2016)

21 Mar 2016 | India

Delhi, late January 2016: for much of the day, the sun barely peeps through the smog. The sky is cloudless but a dirty white, like sheets washed one-too-many times. According to a recent newspaper poll, the overwhelming majority of Delhi’s 17 million inhabitants support a return to the “odd-even” system which takes half the city’s cars off the road every day in an attempt to combat air pollution. According to the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, 75% of the smog blanket which covers the city for much of the year is due to vehicle emissions, unlike Beijing, whose reputation for the worst air in Asia stems from the large numbers of dirty coal-fired power plants ringing the city.

But coal, and its role in India’s energy future, is the subject of intense controversy. Our ‘Coal Rush and Beyond’ research group has come to Delhi to meet policy analysts from think-ranks and activists, lawyers who have fought crucial environmental cases through the courts, and grass-roots activists from NGOs like Jan Chetana, Jan Abhivyakti, and Greenpeace, all of us eager to share their insights, findings and enthusiasms.

What do we learn? The conversations are about equity and justice, for the poor and dispossessed, and especially for adivasis, India’s tribal peoples, who have special rights under the Constitution. These rights, we hear, are increasingly being threatened by the encroachment of coal mining. Both the Indian states and the central government argue there’s no other way to achieve “energy equity” for 300 million Indians who are without electricity and prosperity to all. Ashok from Prayas Energy group confirms that India’s developmental needs will mandate the increase of both coal use and renewables; Vinuta from Greenpeace tells us about their campaigns against coal mining in Singhrauli and for village-level solar power in Bihar. Alok details the struggles of adivasis in Sarguja to keep their lands and ways of life from being swallowed by the torrent of development. Ramesh tells of an assassination attempt which has left him wounded but undeterred in his support for dispossessed adivasis in Raigarh. Sudiep and Ritwick, both lawyers, give us a blow-by-blow account of their successful legal challenge in India’s National Green Tribunal to the expansion of a coal mine on advivasi land. We learn that India’s learned judges also have a sense of humour; elephants, remarked the judge in the NGT case, must now be flying between two forested regions where the linking corridor has been cut by mines.

From Delhi we travel overnight by train to our field site. This is Jungle Book country – the forests have Hathi the elephant, Kaa the python, Bagheera the leopard, Shere Khan the tiger, Baloo the bear and, of course, the Bandar Log. These pristine forests now designated as coal blocks for future coal mines. We talk to villagers who live at the forests’ edge and depend on them for their livelihood. They say they’d rather live with tigers and elephants than mines; as the elephant corridor gets depleted, these huge animals rampage through villages, trampling people and houses. The sight of two elephants captured by the Forest Department, rocking back and forth in their chains, trying to get free, shackled for migrating through their normal habitat, is heartbreaking. In this forest immortalized by Rudyard Kipling, neither Hathi nor Mowgli are certain of a future.