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April 01, 2011

The Sierra Club in India: The Largest Democracy in the World

India Day 2a

India has a long history of organizing that dates back long before it became an independent nation. But in a world where India wants to be China, and China wants to be the U.S., the paradigm has shifted.

Where in the past people might park their cars miles away so they could say they rode the public bus to a meeting, now the luxury goods of the Western world are a greater motivating factor for the younger, affluent generation.

However, one person can make a difference.

Ritwick Dutta told the story of a man who owns a small hardware store here in Goa. He was not an environmentalist or a lawyer, but he saw the coal mines and other toxic projects that were proliferating unopposed in his state. So he opposed them -- every single one -- during the permitting process, and was immediately dismissed the first thirty times. But the higher courts took notice, and ruled that if every single opposition was dismissed, there must be something wrong with the judges overseeing the process.

Where do we go from here?

After two days of discussion, it is clear that there are overlaps in the work we do in the U.S., and the work our partners do in India, but there is also a huge divide between the situation on the ground here and the situation at home. We might make information publically available on the web, but in communities where electricity is scarce and internet access is scarcer, organizations here rely on pamphlets they can print and pass out.

But it is also clear that there are ways we can work together. Here in India, activists are fighting new coal imports to fuel the ultra-mega coal plants cropping up along the coast. In the U.S., we are fighting new export terminals in the Pacific Northwest that could take coal from the Powder River Basin to China and India.

We can learn from our colleagues to educate people in the U.S. on the ways coal shipped from the U.S. will destroy the very communities the large corporations behind them claim to support. Indian organizations can challenge the imports here by showing that the supply chain is by no means guaranteed, creating a dangerous situation where India relies on outside countries to fuel its deadly plants.

We can also work together to oppose international financing for ultra-mega coal projects. Too often, the U.S. Export-Import Bank and the World Bank take developers' word that plants will help impacted communities, but our efforts to challenge them are thwarted by the fact that we don’t have direct connections to the people displaced by coal.

Now we do. When sharecroppers lose their livelihoods or accidents are covered up during construction, we can get the word out. When fishermen complaining about toxic fly-ash being dumped directly in the ocean, we can alert the banks, and give them Google Earth photos showing the dumps.

India Day 2b

But it's not enough to simply oppose a project from the comfort of our homes, as Debi Goenka made clear to both us in the U.S. and our partners in India. To truly make change, we must visit the sites and speak to the people displaced and impacted by these projects. Only then can we get the whole story, and only then can we fully appreciate the struggle. Tomorrow, we will take the first step by traveling to communities impacted by mining in Goa.

-- Photos and article by Nicole Ghio

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