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April 12, 2011

Sierra Club India Trip - More Perspectives

India coal plants
A team of Sierra Club staffers and volunteers went to India in late March to meet local activists fighting coal and learn how they could work together and help each other. We posted some of their pieces on Compass during the trip. Now Sierra Club staffer Nicole Ghio is back and has written some pieces reflecting on the trip. Here's the first:

Singrauli, India Part 1: A Journey off the Map

When we left for a training session in India to meet with local activists working to protect communities from large-scale coal projects, we didn't know that we'd get an opportunity to see Singrauli, the power capital of India where ten percent of the nation's energy is produced.

But the day after the training ended we pooled our resources and arranged to visit the region at the invitation of Awadesh Kumar, an elder of Indian activism with a bright smile who seemed to know everyone in Singrauli. Awadesh has worked for over thirty years with Srijan Lokhit Samiti (SLS) to protect the residents of Singrauli as they are relocated and forced to live with the impacts of some of the largest industrial projects in the world.


The magnitude of what we were undertaking didn’t really sink in until we were on the road to Singrauli. On a good day, the trip takes five to six hours from Varanasi by car over a winding, rural, two lane highway. Anyone who has been to India is familiar with the organized chaos of the roads there, as cars, motorcycles, rickshaws, and bicycles all compete for space. What we weren't prepared for was playing chicken with the never ending stream of Tata trucks carrying rocks, cement, machinery, ash, and who knows what else to and from the industrial sites.
India traffic

As our driver Vinod avoided another head-on collision (see above photo) by sliding between two heavy-duty trucks with maybe a foot to spare in front, behind, and on the side, Cesia Kearns, who would be officially named the campaign representative for coal exports soon after our trip, asked if anyone had made sure the colleagues we had left in other parts of India and America were aware of where we were going.

We ticked off the list -- three other Sierra Club representatives from the training, our Indian colleagues, and our fellow traveler Glen Besa's wife, Tyla. Glen is a long time organizer in Virginia, and currently serves as the Chapter Director. He came to India to discuss how the Sierra Club works with local communities impacted by coal in the U.S. with our partners doing the same work in India. Satisfied that if we didn't return from the rabbit hole in a few days people would know where to look for us, we sat back and tried not to focus on the unnerving traffic.

Rounding out our crew was Shivam, who works with Awadesh and served as our translator. In many ways we saw Singrauli through Shivam's eyes. When he was younger, Awadesh protested a second colonialism in India by refusing to learn English, and nearly all of the local residents we met did not speak English either. Our interactions in Singrauli were almost entirely related through Shivam's poetic translations.

As night set in we passed the first of the large industrial projects outside of Singrauli, Jaypee Cement's Dalla facility. Dalla is literally choking on the dust from the factory, from stone crushing operations nearby, and from the trucks constantly rolling up and down the highway. The dust was so thick that literally nothing else was discernable through the fog except for the truck lights as they approached.  But we didn't have time to stop; there was too much more to see.
India dam

Finally we reached the Rihand Dam (pictured above), the where the story of energy development in Singrauli begins. Completed in the 1960s, the dam displaced 140 villages. The dam was supposed to help agriculture, and the 600 MW of generation was supposed to help power the nation. Now the water goes to coal plants, and what's left is largely contaminated by coal ash from Singrauli's seven coal-fired power plants.

The general thinking is that massive coal projects are necessary to give energy access to the 44 million people in India without electricity, but as we found, the people living in the shadow of the power lines connecting the plants to industrial facilities rarely see any benefit. Furthermore, with weaknesses in the grid causing a net loss of 28.65% of electricity, too often additional generation does little to address the problem.

And so we entered Singrauli, where there are eleven open cast coal mines, seven coal plants, and proposals to grow that number to seventeen -- all in an area of 1,800 square kilometers. Tired and ready for sleep, we had one last stop to make. Geeta, the wife of a longtime activist working with Awadesh, Vinod, had prepared an 11pm feast for us with help from her children Manu, Preeti, and Priya. Exhausted and stuffed with dhal, rice, and many delicious things I don't know the names of, we checked in to a guest house and tried to get some sleep before the big day.

Photos by Nicole Ghio.

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