So I’m here in India, where two-thirds of
electricity still comes from coal,
which is considered the cheapest fuel.
I want to find out its true cost.”
“Oh my god… this is crazy!”
“Wow, everybody has got their faces covered
because there is just so much dust here.
“I spent a lot of days reading about coal and coal mining in this country, but seeing themines on both sides of the road, all the way to the horizon, is a scale that you can’tcomprehend, unless you are here.”
India is the second-largest producer and consumer of coal in the world, after China.
And the demand for energy is rising faster here than anywhere else.
Unlike in the US or the UK, where natural gas was found, India currently has no large-scale replacements for coal yet.
With its abundant reserves, and no major alternatives, coal remains the cheapest and easiest source of energy.
And so extraction continues: In June 2020, the PM announced 41 new blocks spanning around 470 square kilometers of land would be opened for mining.
In February 2021, the number stood at 75 But burning coal is already driving emissions
dramatically up worldwide and the pollution from the toxic smoke is now responsible for
one on five deaths globally. Arguably, the direst impacts of coal mining is local.
“I’m going to go meet communities that live around mines like this to understand the impact of coal on their lives.”
“We’re on our way to a village so remote that it’s not even on the map.
And in fact, this is not even a road.”
This is one among tens of thousands of villages that lie within India’s mining belts.
Around two-thirds of the region’s inhabitants are tribal or indigenous.
Kendai village is literally sitting on a mine that has hollowed out the ground beneath it.
The 31 indigenous families here live with the consequences of their extreme proximity
to a coal mine every day.
Malmati is a member of the tribe here, called the Pando, and was born in this forest.
She wants to show me what has now happened to their source of fresh water.
“It’s completely black, full of coal and ash.”
“This goes directly to our fields. And our crops don’t grow. Nothing does.
It’s a huge problem. It just settles there.
Just like it has here.”
The stream here is toxic – thick with the ash that
remains after the extracted coal is washed.
As well as remnants of dynamite
that were used to blast the ground.
The coal mining company was asked to provide
fresh piped water instead, but that is filthy too.
“Even animals can’t drink, how can we?”
“What happens if you drink it?”
We get headaches and fevers with this water.”
While we were talking, things were getting
heated up on the other side of the village.
“The people from the mining company
have seen people with cameras come here
so they have come to inspect the water.
Of course, the tribal community is very angry
that they have only come today, and so
things are getting pretty intense.”
“You’ve made an agreement with us
but don’t do anything.”
“What they want to explain is that this is
the kind of water they have to drink every day.
So this boy is filling a bottle of water to
send back with these representatives
to their bosses, so they can visually see
the kind of water that comes here,
and these people are forced to drink.”
So we went to the mine next door, to give
them a chance to respond to allegations of
pollution – and hear their side of the story.
We had permission to film in the underground
mine weeks before we went,
but when we got there, they refused to
speak to us or let us film.
“It’s just really disappointing that
we’re not allowed in here.”
Coal-rich central India is home to some of
the most biodiverse forests on the planet.
So aside from the local water and soil pollution,
extracting coal, which is considered to be
in ‘national interest’, also means destroying
large tracts of old-growth forests.
Even according to government estimates,
164,000 hectares of forest land have been lost to
mining here since the 1950s.
Millions of indigenous people live
in these forests.
The rush for coal and other natural resources
is displacing communities here
on an unprecedented scale.
And this has remained largely underreported.
I saw this story play out in every village
I visited here. Some, from the Gond community,
had already been displaced from
their ancestral lands.
Some from the Dhanuhar community
we’re about to be displaced.
And others believed their turn
would come at some point.
Ramesh Sharma is a renowned
independent land rights activist,
who works to improve legal and
institutional support for communities here,
which are at risk of losing
their lands to mining.
We sat down for a chat about why the country
is still investing in coal mining.
But that’s not an excuse, because I would say,
that depends on our consumption pattern,
our whole consumerism.
So if you are not really ready to listen
[to] the people who have actually suffered,
the people who are the victims, the people who
are actually sacrificed for your power production,
for getting 24/7 electricity in the big cities.
We cannot say that some villages
have to live in the dark.
So this is our moral responsibility to listen
[to] all those people.”
We contacted the coal ministry to address
the allegations of the people we met in Korba.
But they did not give us a date to be interviewed
in the weeks before the publication of this piece.
While we were still in the region, the community
with the polluted water received some news
they wanted to share.
“The community at Kendal has invited us
for dinner tonight.”
The celebratory welcome they extended to us
as visitors was in stark contrast to the news
the village head, Jaan Sai, wanted to share.
This area has just been surveyed, and they
have been notified that it will become
an open-cast mine — which means that any day now,
this community will be evicted from the forest.
“This is my motherland where I was born.
It was once so green. I remember the leopards, hyenas, birds, and snakes. We were so happy then…”
Of the 31 families here, seven do not have entitlement deeds to prove they belong here.
The government is responsible for rehabilitating those with papers.
While mining has displaced people around the
world – from Germany to Zimbabwe –
the history of rehabilitation in India is especially poor.
Since 1951, over 2.5 million people have been displaced by mines, and less than a quarter were rehabilitated.
“Now the government is asking us to leave
this place. Where will we go?
We have worked on this land to make it fertile and sustain us.
We don’t want to be enemies. We only want to save this land.”
In the morning, they led me into the forest, to show me why they are adamant about not leaving this place.
The Pandos use tools including bows and arrows to collect fruits from the forest.
“He’s talking about the coal company and how it’s completely destroyed their forest,
and their ‘Kanda’ which is this kind of tuber.”
Their main source of nutrition is a kind of tuber they dig out of the ground.
They are largely a self-sustaining
community, living off the forest.
“Oh my god, it’s delicious!
It’s super fresh and it’s really cold
and it’s amazing.”
Driving through the coal belt, we saw defunct mines
everywhere, where extraction once boomed,
but now nothing remains but blots on the landscape.
“Wow, it’s completely barren.”
“There used to be two villages that were here, before the mine came and set up about 22 years ago.
And now the villages have gone, and the mine has shut down.
And there’s nothing left here. No people, no forests, no coal.”
Mines normally have a lifespan of only a
few decades, as the deeper you go,
the less economical it becomes
to operate them.
So new ones open, while hundreds silently shut down across the country.
“This entire land behind me would have once been expansive forest, full of biodiversity and home to a number of indigenous communities.
When you factor in the social and environmental cost, coal doesn’t seem so cheap anymore.”
This is the question we need to ask ourselves.
Moving forward, how do we balance growth and the need for development with the health and rights of local communities and the environment?
Final Conclusion on How Coal Mining is Displacing Millions
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