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October 16, 2013

Blog Action Day: Violence and Intimidation Don't Stop Indian Activists Fighting Deadly Coal Plant

India Coal PlantsThis blog post is part of Blog Action Day. Founded in 2007, Blog Action Day brings together bloggers from different countries, interests and languages to blog about one important global topic on the same day. Past topics have included Water, Climate Change, Poverty, Food and the Power of We, with over 25,000 blogs taking part since 2007.

This year's theme is human rights. Here's a post from Nicole Ghio of the Sierra Club International Program:

Violence and Intimidation Don't Stop Indian Activists Fighting Deadly Coal Plant

What would you do if a massive coal plant that would poison your air and water broke ground adjacent to your home? What if your neighbors were forcibly removed to make room for the project? What if friends who attempted to protest the plant disappeared mysteriously? And what if this was not a new occurrence, but rather a story that has been repeated again and again for over 50 years? If you live in Singrauli, India, this is your reality, and amazingly, the answer is you would still fight back.

Starting with the construction of the Rihand Dam in the 1960s, and continuing with the opening of numerous, massive coal mines and multi-thousand megawatt coal plants, Singrauli is a sacrifice zone for power and powerful interests. When I visited the district in 2011, I was told no one was an "original" resident - everyone had been forcibly moved, many multiple times, as new projects are developed.

Originally the dam was supposed to bring prosperity and energy to the district, but today it feeds the water hungry coal plants. Nearby residents are supplied with drinking water from the damn, but "the officials themselves say that water is not fit even for taking a bath, and is highly toxic as the waste of most of the power plants in the area mixes with the water," according to Hiralal, one of the community members. And lest there be any doubt about how dangerous coal is, in 2012 pollution from coal-fired power plants caused 100,000 premature deaths in India.

Who is behind the push to exploit Singrauli's resources at the expense of local communities? There is the state owned Coal India Limited, the world's largest coal company, private corporations like Reliance Energy, which benefited from illegal land acquisitions in the coal-gate scandal that rocked India, and the U.S. government, which approved over $900 million in financing for Reliance Energy's 4,000 megawatt Sasan coal-fired power plant and its associated mine.

Lining up against these forces are local residents, tribal leaders, and labor interests, which must contend not only with the loss of their homes, their health, and their livelihoods, but also with government and police forces that operate hand in hand with corporate interests.

Back in 2011, I traveled to Harrahawa, a village with a school and running water whose residents were about to be forcibly displaced to make way for a coal ash pond to hold toxic waste from Sasan. Since then, Reliance has begun destroying their homes without permission or legal authority. As Krishna Das Saha explains, "No notice was given to us before our house was broken down. At night when we were sleeping a huge portion of our house was razed." With no other option, villagers are forced to the rehabilitation colony, where a new school has been built for their children - only the makeshift structure cannot withstand the weather and is not functional.

In some ways Krishna Das Saha was lucky in that he had a title for his land. Members of the Baiga tribe relied on the forest to survive, but they were deemed landless and either received no compensation or very little. At the rehabilitation colony, Baiga families were promised a meager allowance until they were given jobs, which was then cut in half, and then stopped altogether. Without work, tribal members search for manual labor and live on the brink of starvation.

A local labor leader, Sati Prasad Razak  of the Sasan Ultra Mega Power Vistaphit Avam Mazdoor Sangh (Union Sasan Ultra Mega Power Affected and Labourers), told me how Reliance refuses to hire local workers, despite this being part of their agreement, due to fears that laborers will organize. It is also easier to cover up accidents and deaths if family members are not nearby, including a smokestack collapse that killed 30 workers.

Sati Prasad also told me about his friend, Sudarshan Rajak, whose house was bulldozed after he protested against Sasan and the forced removals. Sudarshan Rajak was never seen again, and Sati Prasad believed he was inside his home when it was destroyed.

Unfortunately, this story is all too common. After Ramji Bhasod protested against the dumping of waste from the mine in his village, his son Suresh died mysteriously while working as a daily wager at Sasan. Altogether, local residents report there have been over 500 accidents at Sasan.

Despite the violence and intimidation, activists are unwilling to give up. On September 12, Sati Prasad submitted a letter on behalf of the to the District Magistrate asking for documentation of the people who have been affected by Sasan, for permanent jobs for project affected people working on a contract basis, for the payment of back wages owed to local contract workers, and for a halt to construction of a boundary wall until displaced people are adequately compensated. If these minimal demands were not met, he was prepared to lead a mass protest at Sasan's main gates on September 19th.

The response was swift and harsh. On September 18th, Sati Prasad was dragged out of his home on and arrested without a warrant. He describes what happened next:

At night, almost at 1am, I was taken to Inspector chamber. SP was already present there. He pointed constable to close the door. Officer asked me to take off my clothes. When I asked why? He abused me. Then I took off my clothes and just in my undergarments I was interrogated. Officer asked me again- (Abuse) "what you would have done tomorrow at Sasan gate?" I replied- Sir I would have demanded in front of company. He said- Ok! We are company and the bench lying in front of you are men. Now say what is your demand? I said- "I would have said the same as what I have mentioned in the letter submitted to you people too." Then he abused me and yelled saying now go on with your speech, pointing towards police constable as they started beating me. I shouted why you are beating me. Police officer angrily ordered to beat me with stick. Then they tied both of my hands and afterwards I was heavenly beaten.
As September 18th turned into September 19th, villagers marched to Sasan, where police had barricaded the main gate. Despite being unarmed, they were told that they could be arrested under section 144 of Indian Penal Code, which allows for the arrest of members of an "unlawful assembly" if they possess a deadly weapon or object that could be used as a deadly weapon. Awadhesh Kumar, president of the community organization Srijan Lokhit Samiti (and my team's guide when I visited Singrauli), condemned Sati Prasad's arrest and the subsequent security actions, saying:
This is an attempt to suppress the voices of the local communities. Reliance cannot use suppression as a tactic for long. They have to address the pertinent issues raised by the people, about jobs, compensation and health impacts. It's a shame that the local administration is hand in glove with the company.
Before his eventual release, Sati Prasad was brought to court and accused by the police, something he says left him "humiliated and disgusted." When he attempted to return to his contract position at Sasan, he was fired and only paid Rs. 3,700 (about $60 USD) for three years work.

Projects like Sasan are advertised as a means to address the over 400 million people in India without access to electricity, but the truth is that they serve the wealthy and industrial sector, while leaving the people who need power the most in the dark. As I traveled around Singrauli, despite the tens of thousands of megawatts being generated all around me, I saw that local residents mostly lived in small dwellings without access to electricity. It was more profitable to send the power over huge distances, despite grid losses, to industrial centers than provide energy to the people of Singrauli.

The truth is large, centralized coal projects like Sasan are terrible at addressing energy access. The International Energy Agency (IEA) found that in order to reach 100 percent energy access, half of all energy services must be provided by off-grid clean energy. In fact, when the 2012 blackouts left over 600 million people in India without power, those with access to solar were able to keep the lights on. Meanwhile, the high cost of coal on the international market has caused near financial collapse across the industry in India, pushing plants to the brink of bankruptcy.

The protests lead by Sati Prasad and others in Singrauli are not in vain. A grassroots movement is brewing across India and the globe as communities rise up to protest deadly coal projects.

In Sompeta, India, thousands turned out to oppose a coal-fired power plant, and several villagers lost their lives in clashes with police. But despite the huge odds against the activists, they won an interim halt to the project. Meanwhile, in the last two months Turkish activists celebrated as the courts rejected the Environmental Impact Assessment for a coal plant they have been fighting for two years, and thousands of people in Bangladesh joined a five-day march to protest a coal-fired power in the world's largest mangrove forest.

Despite the violence and intimidation from a foe with seemingly unimaginable wealth and influence, I firmly believe that the Sati Prasad's of the world will eventually win. The documentation of the damage coal does to public health and local economies is too damning, and the demand from communities worldwide to move from dirty coal to clean energy is too great.

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