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May 06, 2013

Indian Court Strikes Down Another Coal Plant

Coal plant 1In justifying its decision to revoke the environmental clearance for a huge 1,050-megawatt coal plant, the Indian National Green Tribunal (NGT) described its original approval as 'smacking of non-application of mind.' I couldn't agree more. In fact, if the world moves forward with the massive coal pipeline it has planned, future generations will have much stronger words than these. Hell, with climate-change effects today roasting Australia and disastrous air pollution killing hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens, we should have stronger words now. But of course actions speak much louder than words and the NGT is letting its rulings do all the talking.

It turns out that this is just the latest in a string of rulings by the NGT that strike at the heart of India's proposal to dramatically expand its reliance on coal. Back in February of 2012 the NGT made its first ruling when it ordered a halt to construction of a coal plant in Kutch, home the country's first "ultra-mega power project," Tata Mundra, as well as a slew of new coal proposals. After the Kutch ruling, the NGT struck again, revoking the environmental clearance for a coal mine in Chattisgarh. With the latest ruling, the NGT is demonstrating that these rulings are anything but unique.

But to truly understand the importance of the latest ruling, it's important to understand where the project was sited. Chattisgarh, along with neighboring Jharkhand, makes up the heart of Indian coal country. This is where India's remaining forests, coal, and indigenous peoples combine to form a volatile mix. It's also where opposition to the coal industry is so dangerous you can be murdered for it, even if you are a nun. It's here that the coal industry assumed that plans for yet another big coal plant would hardly be noticed, let alone challenged.

That is until some brave locals decided that enough was enough. They took advantage of the fact that the NGT gives locals the right to challenge any project anywhere in the country on environmental grounds. It's an incredibly progressive institution first created by India's "Green Crusader,'" Jairam Ramesh. Ironically, the project locals just defeated was illegally granted approval by none other than Jairam Ramesh himself. 

As it turns out, the NGT had some choice words for Ramesh and the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). According to the NGT, the project was granted "...environmental clearance...by the MoEF hastily, without proper application of mind and without applying the principle of sustainable development and the precautionary principle since the power plant was proposed to be located in a critically polluted area...where the MoEF itself had imposed a moratorium on further projects." Moreover the NGT cited the fact that the MoEF "had not properly considered the comments and grievances raised during the public hearing." That was enough for them to drop the hammer: "The Tribunal observed that the MoEF's hasty action in granting clearance smacked of non-application of mind."

Scrapping a previously granted coal plant clearance on environmental grounds? Citing sustainable development and the precautionary principle? Dropping the proverbial smackdown for rubber-stamping such projects in the coal industry's wild west? It's enough to make an activist swoon.

Policymakers in the U.S. would do well to take note. After all the "business knows best" antienvironment, antiregulation atmosphere that pervades the country has enabled one of the most destructive forms of mining -- mountain-top removal (MTR) -- to occur within a few hours' drive of our nation's capital. The practice is so destructivethat  it makes Indian advocates like Debi Goenka from Conservation Action Trust blush. If Indian activists react this way, one can only imagine the words and actions the NGT would reserve for MTR. I'mwilling to bet they'd be a hell of a lot stronger than what we are doing about the problem.

-- Justin Guay, Sierra Club International

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