Coal is killing India's poor

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Feature Story - 21 May, 2013
Big coal wants you to believe that fossil fuels will lift India's poor out of poverty.
April 2013, Queensland. Greenpeace Volunteer, Gaurev, onboard the Rainbow Warrior during the Save the Reef campaign.©Greenpeace /James Alcock

Gaurav Jagdish, who recently boarded a coal ship in QLD, knows the poor are usually the last to benefit from coal. 

Is it immoral to argue against selling Australian coal to India? According to this article in the Herald Sun, it may as well be: “[W]hat sort of paternalistic world do we live in where folk from a first world nation comfortably deny the rights of a developing nation the means to supply a reliable energy source to its people.”

Framing Australia’s coal exports as some kind of benevolent form of aid is not a new tactic, but it continues to offend those of us who have to live with the consequences of this trade. It should not go unchallenged.

I am one of the activists who climbed MV Meister to protest the export of Australian coal and highlight the damage being done to the Great Barrier Reef and to the climate. I come from Bangalore, India and I participated in the action after giving much thought to the situation in India, which sees 57 per cent of its electricity generated from coal. The irony in India is that the areas which enable this 57 per cent of electricity generation are the very ones most deprived of energy.

Electricity generated by coal is only reaching urban areas and rich states (industrialised and developed), while 250 million people in regional and rural India continue to live in darkness. Even in many areas where electricity has supposedly reached, the quality of electricity is so poor it does not even allow families to run a fan or light properly, let alone an electric stove to avoid the fumes from indoor biomass stoves.

While coal is always mentioned with regards to eradicating energy poverty, what is transpiring in the name of the same logic in India seldom gets any mention.

According to a recent report by Urban Emissions, 85,000 to 115,000 people died due to coal-related pollution in India in 2011-12, of whom 10,000 were children. The estimated cost to the public exchequer is between US$3300 million and US$4600 million dollars. Meanwhile the state of Maharashtra is confronting the horror of man-made drought because irrigation water meant for farmers was diverted to industries — 65 per cent of which are coal-fired power plants.

My country is seeing a lot of environmental damage with its forests and wildlife under threat and the accompanying displacement of the indigenous population who depend on those forests. Known as the Scheduled Tribes in Central India, these ancient communities are being pushed into deeper poverty as coal exploitation destroys their forest homes.

On the other hand, the country is already witnessing many projects providing electricity through mini grids, which are in turn powered by small scale renewable energy projects. The state of Bihar, which has the least amount of energy access in India and has no access to much of coal, has taken an ambitious programme of providing electricity to all in the state through decentralised renewable energy by 2015.

This would not have happened if renewable energy was not cost-effective. The wind tariff in India is INR 1 (AU$0.02) more than coal, while the solar tariff has dropped from INR 18 (AU$0.36) to around INR 7 (AU$0.14) under the Indian government's scheme called Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission.

Like most addictions, India’s obsession with coal is not sensible or rational. It is driven primarily by an unhealthy government-industry nexus. How do we know that? Because a US$200 billion dollar scam was uncovered 2012, where the Indian government had allocated 206 coal blocks at throw-away prices to 25 of India’s largest industrial conglomerates for mining between 1993 and 2011.

As an Indian, I am aware that India needs energy to develop. But just adding more coal without fixing the problems that assail the electricity sector, or measuring the impact of coal on India’s environment and its people, is not the answer to inclusive and sustainable development. We need comprehensive planning of energy, where renewable energy which can electrify our rural areas and reduce energy shortages (in urban areas), is also given its due. In the end, if anyone is indeed worried about those experiencing energy poverty, then they should also worry about how extremely vulnerable they are to the impact of climate change.

This article first appeared in New Matilda

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