With India becoming a sweatshop for consumers all over the world, their coal war is also our war
On October 1, police bullets killed 5 villagers and injured 40 others in a village in central India. Their crime: protecting their fertile lands. The National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) goes over dead bodies to get at the coal lying under the highly productive soil.
This is only one of 48 mapped struggles in India against the fossil fuel industry and one of 231 environmental justice frontlines from which we know enough details to feature in the Atlas of Environmental Justice. That's the tip of the iceberg. Pushing people off their lands accompanies 80% of these conflicts. The land dispossession has accelerated since 1991, when India decided to adopt the ‘Western way' of GDP growth at all costs. Saskia Sassen, and Ashish Kothari and Aseem Srivastava describe the speeding up of expulsions in relation to the arrival of neoliberal policymaking in their books (Expulsions and Churning the Earth: The making of Global India). It turns out that as the world's Cold War ended, a coal war was just getting started in India.
And with India becoming a sweatshop for consumers all over the world, that coal war is also our war. We line up in the Primarks and Zeemans of this world to buy the cheapest possible T-shirt made in the cheapest possible factory in India, which runs on the cheapest source of electricity available. This race to the bottom is resulting in ever more victims.
In Badkagaon, in the state of Jharkhand, the recent police killings were only the latest episode in a struggle of 8,745 families that started back in 2004, when coal blocks worth US$ 5 billion were allotted to NTPC. Even after convincing 2,614 desperate families to sell their land at dumping prices, the vast majority of all families refused to sell and continued to protest. In the past half year, the frontline heated up. Amidst lots of protests, and with heavy security, mining started on May 17, 2016.
On August 14, some 200 villagers temporarily prevented NTPC contractors from building a resettlement colony. The villagers had thrown stones, to which the police had responded with tear gas and 22 rounds of bullets, injuring 6 people, including a journalist (videos are here and here). They were later arrested when they reached a civil hospital in Hazaribagh for treatment. On September 15, some 1,000 villagers started a sit-in protest and on October 1, police opened the fire on them, with lethal effect.
The state terror didn't stop there. After police and paramilitary forces carried out a violent door-to-door search of houses in the six villages of Chapakala, Chipakhurd, Sonbarsa, Churchur, Arahar and Nagri, hundreds of families fled their homes - making all of them fugitives. While they are running from justice for trying to protect their lands, it's the coal miners and police chiefs that should be brought to justice.
This is just one recent example of India's coal war, which is everything but cold. Think it through and the madness of it all is dizzying. India is today a country where almost 1.3 billion people compete for space and access to natural resources that can give them a chance for leading a life in dignity. Whatever coal remains in the ground now is resting under land of high value, either because of an ecosystem or from a livelihood perspective.
So digging coal in India today boils down to destroying very valuable land and evicting ever more people through state violence. As a result, some really desparate but combative people join the ranks of rebel Naxalites. It's no coincidence that Jharkhant, the Walhalla for coal mining companies, is where their struggle has been most intense, often directed towards the coal mines. India's former Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, called the Naxalites "India's gravest security threat", but he could have said just the same about their chief enemy: the mining companies. Arundhati Roy wrote a by now famous essay about this.
However, aside from this violent branch of resistance, there is the much broader and bigger resistance to mining that simply consists of a multitude of communities who decide that they don't want to see their lands turned upside down with them being pushed to some lousy resettlement house with a dirty, underpaid and temporary job in the 'best case' scenario, and to the slums in the worst case.
This 'multitude' - those communities that don't want fossil fuel operations on their doorsteps or their lands - can be found in Lancashire and Dakota as well. When these communities connect and get attention beyond their locality, they become so powerful that in the end they can win.
Two things need to be added to the costs of coal mining and both are of concern to all of us. The first is climate change. Most readers of this piece are likely to care ‘above-average' for the environment in general and climate change in particular. I assume most of us don't need an explanation why runaway climate change is a big problem for all of us and why any coal that is dug up adds to the problem, right? The latest climate science just said how much more new digging we can do if we want to do what the Paris Agreement aims to achieve. For coal, it's zero.
The second cost is air pollution. In Europe alone, effective emission limits could save thousands of lives every year, yet more than half of the coal power stations in Europe are operating with ‘permission to pollute above limits' as set in EU law. These are the findings of a new report ‘Lifting Europe's Dark Cloud: How cutting coal saves lives'. In the much less regulated coal power sector in India a much larger number of Indian lives could be saved by deciding to leave the coal in the hole.
When the people in Kusum Tola and Badkagaon in Jharkhand, India are shouting anti-coal slogans, they echo so many other communities around the globe. For them and for millions of others this struggle is necessary for their survival in the here and now. They don't fight because some violent storm might wreck them in the future. They don't fight because some dirty air might one day kill them. But while they are fighting their survival struggle in the present they are also fighting for the future of their compatriots and for the future of us all.
It is important that we pay respect to the real environmental heroes of our times: those at the fossil fuel frontlines.
Nick Meynen is one of The Ecologist New Voices contributors. He writes blogs and books on topics like environmental justice, globalisation and human-nature relationships.