India and China both have high levels of poverty. Both are energetically pursuing policies of economic growth to both reduce poverty and avoid social unrest. In order to fuel this rapid growth, both have chosen to exploit domestic coal reserves as a readily available and inexpensive energy source.
This, despite the fact that coal is the largest carbon dioxide emitter of all fuels, is the cause of massive air pollution and is environmentally devastating in its extraction.
While both countries have pushed back against calls to reduce their coal burning, claiming that they would do so once they reached their economic targets, China, in response to major concerns over air pollution, has taken several actions. For one thing, they've banned coal burning in the city of Beijing. They’ve also made a major shift from coal to natural gas in their electricity generation sector. They’ve reduced court fees, making it easier for environmental groups to bring suit against companies, and they have also made a huge commitment to ramp up the deployment of renewable energy.
Not to be outdone, the Indian government, led by newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has announced a very ambitious program for renewable deployment that could, if achieved, potentially catapult the country to the front of the pack, with more renewable power generation capacity than anyone else.
So, with all this good news, it comes as a bit of a surprise to learn that while the Indian government is very progressive in its policies regarding energy, there is a hard stop when there is a perceived threat to economic growth.
Case in point: An Indian environmental activist named Priya Pillai, a member of Greenpeace India, was recently blocked as she attempted to travel to London, where she was scheduled to testify before Parliament about coal-mining activities in India’s Mahan forest. Arriving at the airport, she learned that her name had been added to the government’s no-fly list because her trip was considered “prejudicial to the national interest” and that it could damage India’s image abroad. The action has led to concerns that the Modi government is singling out NGOs that are seen as detrimental to the country’s economic growth.
Ms. Pillai wrote an op-ed in the Guardian, in which she described her fight against Essar Energy and Hindalco Industries, two coal mining companies that have plans to cut down an Indian forest in order to extract coal. This action, says Pillai, would impact 54 villages and destroy the livelihoods of 50,000 people who live in the area. She says she has been harassed, threatened and made victim of a forgery — in the form a letter she never wrote, inciting villagers to resort to violence in their struggle.
Her visit to London was totally appropriate, she said, since Essar Energy is headquartered there. Meanwhile, the Indian government has frozen Greenpeace India's funding.
Activists won a temporary reprieve last September, when a National Green Tribunal withdrew permission for the two companies to begin cutting down trees. This was part of the fallout from the so-called Coalgate scandal, in which the court ruled that every coal-mining license issued between 1993 and 2009 had been granted in an “illegal and arbitrary” manner. The government is scheduled to re-auction the licenses in March.
While economic growth is a legitimate interest of any government, it needs to be balanced by non-business interests such as public safety, well-being for all and long-term protection of natural resources. Perhaps India should take a cue from China to explore other ways to move away from coal more quickly.
Image credit: Greenpeace International: Flickr Creative Commons
RP Siegel, PE, is an author, inventor and consultant. He has written for numerous publications ranging from Huffington Post to Mechanical Engineering. He and Roger Saillant co-wrote the successful eco-thriller Vapor Trails. RP, who is a regular contributor to Triple Pundit and Justmeans, sees it as his mission to help articulate and clarify the problems and challenges confronting our planet at this time, as well as the steadily emerging list of proposed solutions. His uniquely combined engineering and humanities background help to bring both global perspective and analytical detail to bear on the questions at hand. RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he attended the World Future Energy Summit as the winner of the Abu Dhabi blogging competition.
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RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, Grist, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, Design News, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, Environmental Science, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Eniday, and engineering.com among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 53 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP was the winner of the 2015 Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week blogging competition. Contact: email@example.com