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April 13, 2011

Sierra Club India Trip - Part 2 of More Perspectives

India street
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. See more of her photos in this Flickr gallery. Here's the second part of her write-up (her first piece is here):

Singrauli, India Part 2: Coal Ash

We started the day by driving out to pick up Shyam Kishore, a local labor leader who has fought for his community's rights against corporate giants for decades.

In a familiar scene that would play out time and time again on our trip, upon our arrival chairs and benches were pulled out for us to sit on, along with the primary participants at the gathering, usually Awadesh and whomever he arranged for us to meet with. Other observers and members would stand at the edges.

During the discussion, someone would bring out drinks, usually chai and water, but sometimes soda. As the older man of our three person group, Glen was always asked to introduce us, and the first questions were always directed to Glen.

While everyone we met had a compelling story, Shyam's perhaps provided the most insight into Singrauli as it exists now. After years of fighting to stop displacements from coal projects, or to at least get local residents jobs at the plants which had made farming and other means of supporting their families impossible, Shyam was ready to give up.

As he said, to keep the struggle going people need some victory to hold on to, and in his eyes they'd gone decades without one. Amazingly though, he never seemed defeated. Even as he told us that on April 7th, the day we had to return to Varanasi, he planned to go to the Anpara coal plant and officially surrender, he still spoke with fire and passion. We had entered a place with a strong history of resistance, but few successes.
 
This morning the meeting was shorter though. Awadesh hopped on the back of Shyam's motorcycle and we followed them across the barren landscape to the nearest coal ash pond, driving next to the pipes carrying the ash alongside tribal homes and through their communities.
Riding away
It is hard to imagine that Singrauli used to be a dense forest. So dense, in fact, that instead of imprisoning them, criminals were sent here, where they'd never be able to escape. Now it looks like a dry, dusty desert, with oases of jackfruit trees here and there from which residents gathered fallen fruit to eat and sell. As Shyam Kishore explains to us, the tribal communities don’t have legal titles, also called "Patta," to the land that is their mother, on which their ancestors lived for thousands of years. They are easily targeted by companies and pushed from their lands without compensation, or if they are compensated it's only at 40%.

And finally we reached the coal ash pond. Coal ash, or fly ash as it is more commonly known in India, is the toxic sludge that is left after burning coal. It is known to cause cancer, learning disabilities, and other health effects, especially when it is stored in unlined ponds that can contaminate local water supplies.
Coal ash ponds

For Singrauli, this is a small pond. We didn't have time to visit a larger site, or see where the ash is constantly shooting out of the pipes, but what we witnessed was enough. An earthen levy separates the pond from Rihand lake (see photo above), and the two are actually connected by a spillway, so when the pond overflows, the ash -- with its mercury, arsenic, and lead -- goes directly into the reservoir. Jutting out from the levy is a small piece of land, where a hand pump draws ground water from below the ash pond and the reservoir for tribal residents.
Living near coal ash

As we walked down to the edge of the pond, we met a tribal family living in a hut twenty feet from the edge of the site (see photo above and below). Unable to farm the land anymore, they subsist by harvesting the toxic ash from the pond, bagging it, and selling it for cement and other industrial work.
Living near coal ash 2

We asked what will happen to this pond once it is finished, and Shyam told us that he assumes it will become another coal plant. On our way back we stopped so he can give us a better view of the construction at the Singrauli coal plant, the first erected on the site of an old coal ash pond. And here we said goodbye to Shyam, as we looked out at the plant and the toxic dust being kicked up by the machinery.

Photos by Nicole Ghio, more in her gallery here.

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