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May 10, 2012

More From the India to Appalachia Trip: Grave Comparisons

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"These are invisible communities. They aren't covered in the national media, and they aren't covered in the state media."
 
This is how Soumya Dutta described India's rural and tribal communities in the shadow of massive coal projects. After two days listening to stories from Appalachians fighting mountaintop removal coal mining, Soumya and Debi Goenka spoke at the quarterly Alliance for Appalachia meeting about what they are facing in India.
 
Soumya described the devastation that is already being caused by the proposed Tata Mundra 4,000 MW coal plant, which received IFC support from the World Bank in the name of development. The local people who will bear the brunt of the pollution from the plants may not have access to electricity now, but they also aren't connected to the grid, and even if they were they couldn't afford the power.
 
The proponents of the project say it will create 700 permanent jobs, but they ignore the fact that it is already putting the livelihoods of over 10,000 villagers who depend on the land and water at risk. Fishing communities are complaining that ash is contaminating their catch when they hang it to dry, as are villagers who rely on the sea to harvest salt. Livestock that used to roam free in the inter-tidal zones can no longer graze because the coal companies have erected fences blocking access to the commons. Meanwhile the same pollution that is killing the animals is infecting the local communities as they breathe the air and drink the water.

Local communities are rising up against the Tata plant, as well as three additional coal projects in the pipeline for this tiny, coastal area in Gujarat, as they are in impacted areas across India. Soumya told us how in Sompeta, the company and police were met by the women of the community with their broomsticks. The entire community rose up to fight new coal projects, and some of them died in the clashes, but they were successful and the courts were forced to intercede and stop the plants.
 
But it's not just the shared struggle against violence and intimidation that links the activists in India with those in Appalachia. The coastal coal projects, including Tata Mundra, will rely on imported coal from Indonesia, Australia, and maybe even the U.S.
 
Counter to industry claims that coal keeps the lights on in the U.S., coal consumption here is at its lowest level in nearly two decades. The U.S. is abandoning this dangerous and outdated fuel source, and companies are looking to Asia to export their dirty wears. Proposals to build massive export terminals dot the Pacific Northwest, and Indian-owned mines are cropping up in the U.S., including an Essar Group mine in Fayetteville, West Virginia.
 
But the truth is that coal is not cheap anywhere, and it's not a good investment in the U.S. or Asia. Despite industry's rosy predictions, the Tata Mundra plant and other Indian coastal plants that rely on imported coal are on the verge of bankruptcy. Tata went so far as to petition the government to allow them to raise rates, in what amounted to asking for a bailout from the Indian government. If local residents couldn't afford electricity before, they certainly will not be able to access it at a higher rate. And if Tata can't afford coal from nearby Indonesia, how much of a market is there for expensive U.S. coal that must travel by rail to the Pacific Northwest before being shipped across the Pacific?
 
This is not the message that industry wants to hear, and it's not the message that banks want to listen to. So how can an invisible community stand up to the wealth and power that is behind these projects, despite evidence they are economically unviable, that they harm local communities, and that they are literally killing people?
 
When Enron tried to move into India, Debi was one of the people who stood up against them, and won. He told the assembly that all successful movements to block dirty projects share a common thread, local grassroots activism. In India, he fights projects using policy and the legal system, but the courts will ignore petitions unless there is a grassroots movement that refuses to be invisible and demands that those in power acknowledge them. That is what the communities in Gujarat are doing, and it's what the activists in Appalachia are doing.

-- Nicole Ghio, Campaign Liaison

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