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May 07, 2012

Indian Activists Visit Appalachia to Build Global Coalition Against Coal Industry

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The forest-shaded hills of the Appalachian Mountains near Charleston, WV, may seem an unlikely place for Indian activists to campaign against a destructive coal plant being built 8,000 miles away in Gujarat state in India.  But that is where Soumya Dutta of the People’s Science Forum and Debi Goenka of the Conservation Action Trust are headed this week, to meet with local communities engaged in similar struggles against coal corporations and to build a global coalition to fight back against dirty coal. 

Last month Dutta led a team of retired Indian justices and high-level officials on a fact-finding mission to the site of a massive new 4,000 MW coal-fired power station along the shoreline of the Arabian Sea near Mundra, India.  The team documented the glaring social and environmental violations being committed by the Tata Power Company which is building the plant.  Dutta heard first-hand from local fishing villagers and salt-pan workers how the Mundra plant has contaminated their land and waters and threatened their livelihoods, even forcing some to abandon their ancestral homes. 

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What’s worse, the local communities have been systematically excluded from the process and discussions leading to the approval of the Mundra plant.  Tens of thousands of local villagers face severe health impacts, economic hardship, and even displacement when the behemoth coal plant comes fully online.  And yet Tata Power has failed to account for or even acknowledge these social and ecological impacts in its bid for the project. 

Funded in part by the International Finance Corporation, the private lending arm of the World Bank Group, the Mundra plant is just one of hundreds of new coal projects green-lighted in India in the last five years.  Suckered in by the artificially depressed price of Indonesian coal exports in the last decade, the Indian government approved nearly 100 GW of new coal-fueled electrical capacity, creating a “coal rush” of private energy companies trying to get in on the action.  The result has been a Wild West mentality in the industry with little oversight or safeguards for impacted communities. 

Now, as the price of coal on the international market skyrockets, many of these projects are languishing, either stalled in construction or canceled altogether.  But instead of turning away form increasingly-uneconomical coal projects in favor of more efficient, sustainable alternatives, major Indian energy companies are scrambling to secure alternate sources of coal, from acquiring troubled mines in South Africa to locking into long-term import agreements with Australia.  The Indian coal rush has even reached into the heart of U.S. coal country, with conglomerates like the Essar Group staking claims in the Appalachian range. 

And so, as the powerful coal industry is extending its reach, so are coal activists like Dutta and Goenka.  Working with the Sierra Club and Bank Information Center, Dutta traveled to Washington D.C. last week to present his findings in Mundra to the IFC’s Office of the Compliance Adviser/Ombudsman (CAO), which is entertaining a complaint against the project from the affected communities. 

Now, Dutta and Goenka find themselves touring the devastating mountaintop-removal mining site on Kayford Mountain in West Virginia, on a fly-over piloted by SouthWings, Inc.  The Indian visitors will meet with the Alliance for Appalachia, a group of local organizers and communities that have been struggling against the mining companies there, exchanging ideas and sharing strategies of how to effectively oppose these projects.  Threatened with massive environmental destruction, suffocating dust and pollution, and the relocation of entire towns—some even at the hands of Indian corporations—the people of West Virginia may find that they have more in common with fishermen in Mundra than they think. 

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Standing on a narrow strip of sand with the Tata Power Company and its massive Mundra complex on one side and the sea on the other, their homes and livelihoods dwarfed by the pollution-spewing spires of the coal plant, it would have been easy for Dutta and the local villagers to feel trapped and isolated.  Instead, they reached out to sympathetic activists and civil society organizations and communities facing similar struggles, and found support from around the globe. 

This international solidarity is increasingly forging a coalition of groups to forcefully demand that coal has no place in a future that safeguards the health and livelihoods of local communities. Ultimately they hope to speak in one unified global voice against Tata Power, against the Essar Group, and against the devastation this industry is wreaking around the world.

-- Gordon Scott, Sierra Club International Program intern

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