The Indian government’s effort to increase coal production to a billion tons in response to energy shortages has sparked a protest march by tribal villagers from forested coal-mining areas. But their voices are stifled by the green sending of messages by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which obscures India’s dark dependence on coal.
Hundreds of tribal villagers began a long protest march against the government’s plans to expand the coal mines on their land on October 2, an important holiday in India marking the birth of Mahatma Gandhi.
“This country is our country! This country is our country! They chanted men and women in Hindi as they drove through forest roads, country trails, and state and state highways on a 300-kilometer (186-mile) hike to make their voices heard.
Hasdev River, to save the forest and the environment, to preserve their livelihoods, culture and livelihoods, tribes from the Hasdeo Aranya region march 300 km on foot
Modi’s Friends Corporate #adaniThe tribal forest land is seized by a false Gram Sabha proposal, and the Bupeš government is also silent (1/2)#SaveHasdeo pic.twitter.com/w2FGpEoBPx
– Alok Shukla (@alokshuklacg) October 5, 2021
The villagers – from Indian indigenous or Adiva communities – come from the Hasdeo area of the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, one of the largest neighboring parts of the subcontinent’s dense forest, which is rich in biodiversity and wildlife, including elephant corridors that are critical for afforestation.
But the Hasdeo Arand forest is also rich in coal – and it’s a resource that India can’t saturate these days.
Earlier this week, the Indian Minister of Energy and Energy warned of a warning of acute coal shortages. The monsoon floods of domestic coal mines, along with the global energy crisis that led to a jump in coal prices due to increased demand from China, saw a decline in Indian coal imports. There was a power outage, RK Singh Minister warned.
“It’s going to be a touch and go,” he said.
The crisis comes when one of the world’s fastest growing economies emerges from a pandemic with growing energy needs.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made self-confidence a central part of his pandemic recovery plan. In a televised speech last year, Modi pledged to monitor the economic “quantum leap” so that “India could be self-sufficient”.
But critics warn that this leap was made on the backs of India’s most marginalized groups at enormous environmental costs and with little social action.
Increasing coal production to one billion tons
Coal still accounts for almost 70 percent of India’s electricity production. While the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases is dedicated to the transition to renewable energy, India’s quantum, stand-alone growth will be hit hard by “the dirtiest fossil fuel”.
On the international stage, Modi looks back on Mahatma Gandhi’s doctrine of a “commission of the planet with a duty to take care of it.” But even as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres advocates ending a “deadly coal dependency,” the Modi administration is committed to aggressively increasing coal production to a billion tons by 2024.
And while Modi’s green commitments and speeches make headlines, national media overlook the increase in coal production in rural areas under pressure to “hold the line of the Hindu nationalist government,” according to Reporters Without Borders, with expressions of dissent treated as “anti-national.”
Most of India’s increased coal production will come from the central and eastern “coal belt” states of Orissa, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, where the Adivasi communities live in areas rich in biodiversity and wildlife.
“At the national level, 55 new coal mines are planned, and there are plans to expand 193 existing mines. Eighty per cent of the new expansion is on Adivasi land and they will bear the brunt of it, ”said Jo Woodman, a senior researcher at Survival International, a UK-based tribal rights group.
Mining companies are entering a once protected zone
The Adivasi communities in the Hasdeo Arand Forest have waged a decades-long struggle to protect their ancestors and their way of life, driven by indigenous belief systems that attach spiritual value to every feature of the forest — from fruits and flowers to grains and seeds that allow them to survive.
After being declared a “forbidden area” that was forbidden for mining, the status of the Hasdeo Arand forest was constantly disrupted by complex legal and administrative maneuvers by successive governments and state bodies that gave large contracts.
In the absence of foreign beneficiaries for contracts in a shrinking sector burdened with environmental clean-up regulations and land ownership issues, Indian private corporations have picked up bids for the coal block.
In 2011, then-Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh cleaned up three blocks of coal in a mining restricted area. They were “obviously on the edge” of the Hasdeo Arand forest, Ramesh told reporters. “But they are the first and last” to be open to mining, he promised.
Those were the infamous last words, according to Woodman. “Since then, there has been a weakening and bidding, and there is more mining due to the lack of a policy to protect such areas and pressure from mining companies,” she pointed out.
Corporations get contracts, Adivasis bears the costs
By 2013, Adani Group, one of the largest and richest companies in India, had started coal production at the Parsa East-Kente Basan (PEKB) mine in Hasde. The Modi government has since approved more mines, endangering forests and villagers, activists say.
In a statement issued at the start of the latest 300-kilometer march to the state capital Raipur Chhattisgarh, protest leaders Hasdeo claim that Modi’s government “illegally allocated seven coal mines in our region to state government companies, appointed Adani for the development and mining of these blocs.”
The Adani group — led by the country’s second richest man, Gautam Adani — has come under international media scrutiny since environmentalists and indigenous human rights activists in Australia launched a campaign against the Carmichael Group’s coal mine in Queensland.
Considering the close ties between Adani and Modi, the Financial Times reported last year that, “since Modi took office, Mr Adani’s net worth has risen by about 230 per cent to more than $ 26 billion as he won state tenders and built infrastructure projects across the state. “
While the government is trying to accelerate growth by increasing resource extraction, critics note that the concentration of capital in a few favored hands is at the expense of minority rights and national welfare.
“Adivas are considered superstitious, primitive, backward, their connection to the land is belittled, and their lives and lands are treated as disposable. “They are expected to bear the costs in this large increase in coal mining in the so-called national interest, which is considered most effective for Indian private companies,” Woodman said.
In recent decades, the climate change crisis has exacerbated the model of modernization of heavy industrialization and resource extraction driven by cheap fossil fuels such as coal. But for countries like India, China and Brazil trying to lift millions of their citizens out of poverty, an environmentally sustainable alternative to growth remains extremely expensive.
As the international community prepares for next month’s UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, environmentalists believe the focus should be on helping developing countries move to a greener model of modernization.
“Rich countries need to step up and help India wean itself off coal and embark on a path to a true green transition,” Woodman said. “What is worrying is that Modi seems to be hiding behind this green façade and promoting himself as a green leader as we come to the discussion of COP26. But at the same time, he has a great effort for coal – and it’s just not sustainable in the world we live in today. ”