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Behind a ‘green façade’, Modi expands coal mining on India’s tribal lands

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The Indian government’s push to increase coal production to 1 billion tonnes in response to energy shortages has sparked a protest march by tribal villagers from forested areas up for coal mining. But their voices are being drowned out by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s green messaging, which obscures India’s dark addiction to coal.

Hundreds of tribal villagers began a long protest march against government plans for a major coal mining expansion on their lands on October 2, an important holiday in India marking the birth of Mahatma Gandhi.

“This land is our land! This land is our land!” chanted the men and women in Hindi as they navigated forest tracts, village paths, and state and national highways on a 300-kilometre (186-mile) trek to make their voices heard.

The villagers – from India’s indigenous, or Adivasi, communities – hail 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 elephant corridors that are critical for forestation.

But the Hasdeo Arand forest is also rich in coal – and it’s a resource India can’t seem get enough of these days.

Earlier this week, India’s energy and power minister sounded the alarm when he warned of acute coal stock shortages. Monsoon flooding of domestic coalmines, coupled with a global energy crisis that sent coal prices spiking due to increased demand from China, had seen a reduction in Indian coal imports. Power outages were in store, warned Minister R.K. Singh.

“It’s going to be touch and go,” he said.

The crisis comes as one of the world’s fastest-growing economies emerges from the pandemic with soaring energy demands.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made self-reliance a central plank of his pandemic recovery plan. In a televised speech last year, Modi pledged to oversee an economic “quantum jump” so that “India can be self-sufficient”.

But critics warn this leap is being made on the backs of India’s most marginalised groups at enormous environmental cost and with little in the way of social safeguards.

Boosting coal production to 1 billion tonnes

Coal still accounts for nearly 70 percent of India’s electricity generation. While the world’s third-largest greenhouse gas emitter is committed to transitioning to renewable energy, India’s quantum, self-reliant growth will be largely powered by the “dirtiest fossil fuel”. 

On the international stage, Modi touts Mahatma Gandhi’s doctrine of a “trusteeship of the planet with a duty of caring for it”. But even as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres pleads for an end to the “deadly addiction to coal”, the Modi administration is committed to an aggressive expansion of coal production to 1 billion tonnes by 2024.

And while Modi’s green commitments and speeches make headlines, the ramping-up of coal production in rural areas is overlooked by a national media under pressure to “toe the Hindu nationalist government’s line”, according to Reporters Without Borders, with expressions of dissent treated as “anti-national”.

Much of India’s increased coal production will come from the “coal-belt” central and eastern states of Orissa, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, where Adivasi communities live in areas rich in biodiversity and wildlife.

“Nationally, 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 of it,” said Jo Woodman, senior researcher at Survival International, a UK-based tribal rights group.

Mining companies enter a once-protected zone

The Adivasi communities of the Hasdeo Arand forest have been waging a decades-long struggle to protect their ancestral homelands and their way of life, which is guided by indigenous belief systems that attach spiritual value to every feature of the forests – from fruits and flowers to the grains and seeds that sustain their livelihoods.

Once designated a “no-go area” that was off-limits to mining, the Hasdeo Arand forest’s status has been steadily undermined by complex legal and administrative manoeuvers by successive governments and state bodies handing out major contracts.

In the absence of foreign takers for contracts in a shrinking sector plagued with regulations on environmental clearance and land ownership issues, the coal block bids have been scooped up by Indian private corporations.

In 2011, India’s then environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, cleared three coal blocks in the no-go zone for mining. They were “clearly on the fringe” of the Hasdeo Arand forest, Ramesh told reporters. “But they are the first and the last” to be opened for mining, he vowed.

Those were infamous last words, according to Woodman. “There has since been a weakening and auctioning, and there’s more mining to come due to the lack of policy to protect such areas and the pressure from mining companies,” she noted.

Corporations get contracts, Adivasis bear the costs

By 2013, the Adani Group, one of India’s largest and richest companies, had begun coal production in the Parsa East-Kente Basan (PEKB) mine in Hasdeo. The Modi government has since approved more mines, putting forests and villagers at risk, according to activists.

In a statement released at the start of the latest 300-kilometre march to the Chhattisgarh state capital Raipur, Hasdeo protest leaders claimed the Modi government “has illegally allotted seven coal mines in our region to state government companies. The state governments have, in turn, appointed Adani to develop and mine these blocks”.

The Adani Group – run by the country’s second-richest man, Gautam Adani – has come under international media scrutiny since environmentalists and indigenous rights activists in Australia started a campaign against the group’s Carmichael coal mine in Queensland.

Noting the close links between Adani and Modi, the Financial Times last year reported that, “Since Mr Modi came into office, Mr Adani’s net worth has increased by about 230 per cent to more than $26bn as he won government tenders and built infrastructure projects across the country.”

As the government attempts to accelerate growth by increasing resource extraction, critics note that the concentration of capital in a few favoured hands comes at the expense of minority rights and national well-being.

“The Adivasis are viewed as 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 massive ramp-up of coal mining in the so-called national interest, which is seen as making it as lucrative as possible for Indian private companies,” said Woodman.

Over the past few decades, the climate change crisis has upended the modernisation model of heavy industrialisation and resource extraction powered by cheap fossil fuels such as coal. But for countries such as India, China and Brazil that are attempting to get millions of their citizens out of poverty, an environmentally sustainable alternative to growth remains prohibitively 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 shift to a greener model of modernisation.

“Rich countries have to step up and help India wean itself from coal and get on the path to a true green transition,” said Woodman. “What’s worrying is that Modi seems to be hiding behind this green façade and promoting himself as a green leader as we run up to the COP26 discussions. But at the same time, he’s having this massive push for coal – and that’s simply not viable in the world we live in today.”

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