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March 30, 2011

The Sierra Club in India: Day 1

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Appalachians forced off land that has been in their families for a hundred years. Indians relocated from the communities that sustain them. What do these people half a world apart have in common? They are all sacrifices to coal.

This week the Sierra Club is in India, participating in a workshop we helped organize with leaders from coal justice groups across the country. Together, we hope to learn from each other's experience and build the foundation for a global response to the coal rush.

"Pouring water into a leaking bucket."

India has an energy deficit of 8.6 percent. In other words, the amount of energy they produce is 8.6 percent less than the demand, leading to blackouts -- and for 44 percent of the population, a population larger than the entire United States, a lack of electricity all together. This has led to a massive public, and government backed private, drive to ramp up electricity generation by 2031-2, including up to 320,000 MW of new coal. For reference, the average American coal plant generates roughly 400 to 500 MW.

But will this do anything to help electrify the population? According to Indian Power Industry expert Shankar Sharma, the answer is not really. India's unreliable grid causes a net loss of 28.65 percent of electricity, but improvements to the grid, combined with efficiency, could actually leave India with an energy surplus.

So if the power isn't going to the un-electrified population, where is it going? Shweta Narayan told the story of coastal state of Tamil Nadu, where there are 27 proposed projects. If completed, this works out to one plant every 40 km. Meanwhile, the areas where there aren't proposed plants are being opened up to all sorts of toxic developments, including chemical plants, all of which require electricity.

"If you can't improve something, don't destroy it."

Awadesh Komar brought with him a story from an Indian sharecropper, which Madhuresh Kumar from the National Alliance of Peoples Movements translated from Hindi for the group. Before the coal plant, the sharecropper lived in a forest village. As he didn't own the land, his compensation for relocation was barely a pittance. In exchange for the loss of his home and livelihood, he was given a 40 by 60 foot piece of land incapable of supporting his cows or holding the twenty-five members of his extended family together.

Now, instead of living off the land, he is forced to deal with rising prices he can't afford for basic necessities he used to be able to produce himself, due to the influx of people and industry. The coal plant has sucked up the fresh water, causing the water table to drop. And now, with the river drying up and toxic fly ash from the coal plant arriving, there are a slew of dangerous and deadly health impacts awaiting local residents.

Climate damaging coal is pitched as the savior of the developing world by both Western industry and local developers, despite the fact that electricity already accounts for 53% of India’s carbon emissions. But the rush to find a one-size fits all solution fails to accomplish the task at hand -- unless that task really is building industrial capacity on the backs of the poor. India’s ultra-mega coal plants are displacing the people they are meant to electrify, destroying the communities they invade, and literally killing the people they were supposedly built to help -- and they are doing so without actually creating meaningful gains in giving energy access to everyone.

Today, we took time to get to know each other, the people we represent, and fights we are fighting. Tomorrow, the real work begins to build a global movement.

(Photo credit: Jim Dougherty)

-- Nicole Ghio

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