19 July 2014

Peaceful Forest Protest in India © Udit kulshrestha / Greenpeace


It's that time of the year again- when the buck gets passed! Every summer when the power crisis hits hard, the whole rigmarole begins with the power companies blaming coal mining companies for fuel scarcity, mining companies blaming slow environment clearances, delay in the monsoon or even rise in summer temperatures for the supply gap. Governments, power companies and the mining companies love twisting the story to suit their convenience. So for a commoner like you or me, is there any real solution in sight? A quick fix solution proposed by the new government is to ease all regulations that protect the environment, forests and the rights of people so that more forests can be cut down and more coal burnt.

What we don't want to accept is that coal is a finite recourse. If not tomorrow, it is going to be over relatively soon. Do we want to finish our forests along with all the coal we have? India claims that we have the world's 5th largest coal reserve. Of all the coal reserves in India, less than 30% of it lies under forest cover. If we try and demystify the coal ministry claim that delays in issuing forest clearance is the only reason for the delay in fuel supply, they are essentially saying that 70% of our coal reserves cannot be mined and therefore let's dig beneath our forests. What the government will not tell us is that digging up forests, will result in destroying another primary natural resource that we are dependent on - water. Forests are not only important for tigers and tribals, they are also crucial in regulating the climate and even more crucial for ensuring water in our rivers and streams, especially during the summer.

So coal mining could result in not just the destruction of forests but also affect our water sources and bring about a failure of monsoon due to coal burning. This means lesser and lesser water in the summer for agriculture and domestic purposes, let alone for producing power. By opening up more coal mines in the name of enhancing power production and hence ensuring the economic security of our country, what we actually end up doing is creating food and water scarcity. The difficult question is are we ready for this tradeoff?

So far, all have heard from the environment minister are pro-industry assurances of making environment and forest clearances transparent, speedy and even going so far as to state that the environment will not be a road block for development – which leaves one to wonder whether the minister is even aware of the mandate of his portfolio as the environment minister. Another point to note is that efficiency and transparency are absolutely important in all areas of the ministry's functioning, not just in issuing clearances, but also in implementing forest rights, in obtaining consent from project-affected communities and in evaluation of forests and biodiversity before giving clearances. In most cases the MoEF (Ministry of Environment and Forests) completely fails in being efficient or transparent when it comes to evaluation of project sites for their forest quality, biodiversity and people's dependency on those resources and fails to ensure that process is followed both in letter and spirit. Isn't it clear then that this transparency benefits the few that profit in the short run while the rest suffer?

Is there a way out of this? Yes there is. If we are willing to move away from an energy paradigm that depends on finite resources and threatens our food and water security into a paradigm which is sustainable, we can ensure power to the millions who don't have access to it. The added benefit being that our natural resources can be safeguarded for generations to come.

Nandikesh Sivalingam is a senior campaigner with Greenpeace India.