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September 23, 2011

India and Appalachia Coal Community Exchange: Day One

India Delegation in Appalachia

"I feel at home."

This was Vaishili Patil's message to our hosts in Fayetteville, West Virginia during a gathering of shared stories and strategies between activists organizing against mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia and activists working to protect communities from dangerous coal projects in India. For Vaishili, the forests, streams, and waterfalls surrounding us reminded her of the Konkan Coast, a small strip of land where local residents are fighting 19 proposed power projects, including 16 coal plants, and what will be the world's largest nuclear plant, in a struggle to preserve their communities, health, and way of life.

The scenery was not the only thing that made Vaishili and the rest of the Indian delegation feel at home. Just as the Americans in the room came from many different backgrounds and places, our partners in India hailed from across their country and became activists through their own unique paths.

Amulya and Andrew immediately clicked, and spent most of dinner comparing the large community movements of West Virginia and Orissa. Both face an uphill battle to engage residents in the face of intimidation and harassment. But no amount of interference can cover up the fact that overburden from mines and coal ash from power plants are literally poisoning the people they work with, both in India and Appalachia.

India and Appalachia

Bill and Shankar worked for industry and the government before devoting themselves to protecting people from their former employers. For Shankar, the turning point came when he could no longer ignore that coal would not bring the economic development promised by the industry. From his role in government, he saw firsthand that fixing inefficiencies in the power sector -- and not developing new coal projects that displace thousands and render land useless -- was the only way to electrify his country. Bill's conversion was a bit more dramatic. He was raised in a coal family in Appalachia, and worked in the industry. But after his house flooded due to MTR mining, he began questioning coal company practices, prompting difficulties at work and becoming a full-time activist against the very industry that formerly fed him.

Soumya and Drew both educate students and residents on the dangers of coal to inform the public and develop new leaders. When Soumya learned that industry was successfully influencing science textbooks on coal and nuclear power in Indian classrooms, he began organizing workshops and conferences for students and teachers to educate them on the dangers of coal and nuclear power. In total he has participated in more than 200 workshops. Drew counters coal company propaganda in Appalachia by teaching local residents how to test water for toxic heavy metals and to educate them about the dangers they face.

For all the similarities we found, there were differences too. Shankar was surprised to learn that in West Virginia, passenger trains have to wait for the coal trains to pass, not the other way around. Despite the huge number of new coal projects in development in India, it is on Appalachian railways that "coal is given priority over people." In Orissa, the fantasy that new coal projects might help local communities is completely thrown out the window as industrial facilities take coal development to a whole new level by building their own private coal plants so the power can feed directly to their machinery without any illusion that it might help electrify the rural poor outside their walls.

As the evening came to a close, Vaishili summed up why we were coming together: "The fight is not only in my country; the fight is everywhere." For the next three days we will discuss our shared struggles and learn how we can work together to make the movement stronger not just at home, but across the globe.

-- Nicole Ghio

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