India’s New Coal Plans Are A Dangerous Step Backwards On Climate Change

Ancient forests, indigenous people, and vulnerable wildlife are under threat in India as Prime Minister Modi has launched a plan to auction 40 new coal mines to the private sector. The move to open India’s state-owned coal industry to the private sector will significantly increase coal production, wreaking environmental havoc in the process, as least seven of the coal blocks were previously environmentally valuable status where mining was forbidden, and about 80% of the blocks are home to ancient forests and indigenous communities.

The Guardian spoke to indigenous leader Umeshwar Singh Amra, who lives near Hasdeo Arand forest in Chattisgarh, one of the planned locations to be made into a coal mine. Building a mine would destroy countless trees and uproot the lives of indigenous people and animals that live off the forest. Amra witnessed the development of two mines on the forest periphery in 2011 which polluted the landscape, raised crime in the area and caused elephants that lived in the forest to become aggressive, leading to many deaths.

It is particularly troubling how the Joint Secretary for Coal, Maddirala Nagaraju, has spoken of the indigenous people whose land is under threat, saying that they ‘want the land to be acquired because they get high compensation packages’ and claiming ‘the mining will bring a lot of development, employment and money to these areas. How else will we develop these Adivasi (indigenous) people in central India?’ It is not for central government to callously destroy people’s homes and livelihoods to ‘develop’ them against their will. Amra himself said he would rather die than allow mining in the forest.

Despite the WHO calling for a healthy green recovery that stops government subsidies on fossil fuels and the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, saying there is ‘no good reason for any country to include coal’ in recovery plans, Modi’s bid to regain economic growth through boosting coal production will be environmentally devastating, as Indian coal is known for being highly polluting.

Economist and environmental advocate Laveesh Bhandari told Health Policy Watch News that ‘socially, environmentally and economically, coal is very costly. It’s bad economic policy to invest in high cost options when cheaper alternatives exist today.’ There is no reason to continue spending on fossil fuels – as the Guardian explains, ‘India is the world’s cheapest producer of solar power and the cost of constructing a new solar plant is 14% less than that of a building a new coal plant. With proper investment, it has been estimated that the solar energy industry could generate as many as 1.6m jobs in India by 2022, far more than would be generated by domestic coal.’

What is even more puzzling about Modi’s calls for energy ‘self-reliance’ and exporting coal to other countries is that state-run coal mines already have the capacity to exceed the expected demand for coal in 2030 by 20%, according to the Guardian. Indian ‘dirty’ coal cannot be used in many local factories and is not popular abroad, making the whole scheme seem rather pointless. But as Health Policy Watch News notes, investing in coal would be a money-spinner for Modi’s political allies such as the Adani group, which plans to bid for the blocks and to import large amounts of coal from Australia.

Former Environment Minister Jairan Ramesh told the Guardian ‘Modi poses as a great environmental champion globally, but his track record is one of complete loosening of environmental laws and regulations’, adding that ‘the corporate lobbies are just too powerful, and in the name of ease for businesses, environment has become the biggest casualty.’ India’s people, environment, and wildlife are being betrayed primarily in the interests of fossil fuel companies, as few others serve to benefit from coal mining over investing in renewable solutions.

This is happening far too often across the globe. Climate and energy expert Mohamed Adow writes of efforts by climate change-denialist think tanks such as Nigel Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation to push fossil fuels in Africa, despite the fact that the continent has 40% of the world’s potential solar resources and would benefit far more from the decentralised and clean nature of renewable energy than the environmental destruction of building large-scale power grids for fossil fuels.

The climate crisis is an existential risk for life as we known it on our planet, yet monied interests are able to make governments consistently value the fossil fuel industry over the environment, public health, and even the long-term success of the economy. Progress can only occur if leaders are forced to act with the foremost aim of preventing environmental catastrophe rather than lining the pockets of donors and influential corporations.