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April 15, 2011

Sierra Club in India - Mining


A team of Sierra Club staffers and volunteers went to India in late March to meet local activists fighting coal and learn how they could work together and help each other. Now Sierra Club staffer Nicole Ghio is back with pieces reflecting on the trip. See more of her photos in this Flickr gallery, and part 1, part 2 and part 3 of her write-up.


After viewing the dam, the ash ponds, and the coal plants, there was one last piece of the Singrauli energy structure we needed to view -- the coal mines. Awadesh took us to meet a man who works in one of the mines, and he took us to two adjoining mines and allowed us to enter the top part of the mine.

To say the mines were massive would be an understatement. They are surrounded by mountains upon mountains of overburden, piled up without any reinforcement. The mountains of overburden sit right at the edge of the neighboring villages, which are forced to deal with the dust and runoff from the mine waste. We didn't have time to fully explore the actual mining though; there were communities nearby we had to see.


The first was the Baiga tribe at the foot of the mines, with the railroad tracks for the coal cars running right through the middle of the village, and homes just a few meters from the fallen coal surrounding the tracks. Here I could believe that Singrauli used to be a forest. It seemed as though the Baiga had found the last remaining, concentrated patch of trees to shade and shelter them. Unlike the other villages we saw, people here did not approach us or try to speak to us. Awadhesh explained that they were shy, that they didn't want to adapt to this modern world around them, and that they just wanted to be left alone. Because of their traditional practices and lack of knowledge of the law, outside people have exploited them, making the Baiga some of the poorest people living in Singrauli. For the first time, our visit felt like an intrusion. After a failed attempt to speak with one of the villagers, Manmati, we left them to their quiet existence on the patch of land they have left.

There was no shortage of people eager to speak at the second village we visited that evening, Chilkadan. This village was a success. Awadesh and the villagers stopped a forced relocation, and their prize may have been worse than moving. Boxed in by mines, coal plants, and the railroad, 90 percent of the people of Chilkadan have indicated a preference to relocate. But no one will help them. When they appeal to NCL, they are told to go to NTPC; when they appeal to NTPC, they are told it's NCL's problem.

Without help, they are left to make the best of a bad situation. There is only one narrow road through the village, making it hard for people to get in or out in an emergency -- harder still if a car breaks down. The dust from the overburden mountains and the coal trains chokes the village, and villagers experience respiratory and skin problems; their children suffer from malaria. A senior local activist, Ram Subhag Shukla, shared with us an article about 17 cancer patients in the region, and spoke about increased health effects they are facing.


This was without a doubt our most contentious meeting, with Awadesh working hard to convince the villagers that we were not from the World Bank, which has visted, but has not helped the village. As the sun set and the mosquitoes swarmed, the heated debate between the villagers continued. Without breaks for translation, all we could do was watch as they tried to find a way to make people listen.

Our final stop was less fraught. Shivam and Awadesh insisted on taking us to the NTCP helipad, a seemingly less intriguing place, but actually the best way to end the day. From the edge of the cliff, we could see the massive Singrauli Super Thermal power plant lit up in the dark with its spewing toxic plumes, close enough that it felt like we could reach out and touch it. The next day we would return to Geeta's for another amazing and large meal before beginning the long drive back to Varanasi. Shivam climbed up on the railing to get a good picture as the rest of us absorbed the magnitude of the impacts here in Singrauli, which exist on a scale we had never witnessed before.

Touring these places and talking with community members and leaders like Awadesh provided an unmatched opportunity to explore each others' organizing approaches, and the spectrum of challenges the people of Singrauli face. It illuminated the similarities and differences between India and the US in our opportunities to pursue legal challenges, friendly policies, and government and corporate accountability. We have our share of problems in the US, but the obstacles are far greater in India.  Community leaders like Awadesh, however, know that victory -- no matter how small -- only comes through organizing people. And so the battle continues in Singrauli, with Awadesh diligently encouraging the younger generation to stand up for their rights as he did.


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