‘Many of India’s development challenges are linked to how the country mines coal’

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EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW

Black gold? The documentary Coal Curse looks at how an entire society was devastated by coal mining
Black gold? The documentary Coal Curse looks at how an entire society was devastated by coal mining. Photo: Peter Caton/ Greenpeace

What is Coal Curse all about?
The Coalgate scandal has been widely covered in the media. But when you talk about the story of coal, we should also look at people who lost their land and livelihood, how the environment has been degraded and how an entire society has been devastated. My documentary highlights those aspects. The coal story is complex, with many nuances. My idea was to look at the big picture and the ground reality.

Coal mining has a history of more than 100 years. But even after Indira Gandhi nationalised coal mining and the Coal India Ltd was set up, many problems remained. Now, with the private sector again involved in coal mining, we are seeing other kinds of problems, which are related to what one can call crony capitalism.

More than half of the energy consumed in India is coal-based. In fact, 70 percent of electricity used in Delhi is coal-based. We are importing 15 percent of our coal requirement. We are unable to generate adequate electricity because we don’t have coal.

These problems are intrinsic to the economy. These aspects are highlighted in newspapers daily. What is not so talked about is the devastation caused by coal mining, which my film tries to highlight.

You say mining has given rise to crony capitalism. Doesn’t it mean there is something wrong with India’s development paradigm?
After liberalisation, the government has put in efforts to kickstart economic growth, but what hasn’t been put in place is a strong regulatory mechanism to enforce the law. You can argue that laws need to be amended or changed, including the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act. An amendment to the Act is still pending in Parliament. The point is, you are not even implementing the existing laws. The reasons could be many — lack of political will, lack of coordination between the Union and state governments, etc.

The regulatory authority in India tends to be an extension of the bureaucracy. Then you find that these regulatory authorities are often not extensively empowered. Sometimes, regulators are reluctant to regulate. As a result, the business-politicscriminal nexus remains the core reason behind India’s problems.

Look at the so-called red corridor we talk about. The most mineral-rich part of the country also happens to be the land of the poorest of the poor. These areas are where left-wing extremism is at its peak. So it’s not at all coincidental that if you juxtapose the mineral map of India with the forest map of India and the map of the home ministry, which shows incidents of left-wing extremism, these three maps by and large tend to overlap. This is a vast area that accounts for more than onefourth of the country’s geographical area. A lot of development challenges that India faces are intrinsically linked to the way the country is mining coal.

When you talk about the tribals of Singrauli, what does economic growth mean to them?
GDP growth is certainly a key issue for the finance ministry and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. In the 2004-08 period, our GDP growth was 9 percent. Never in the history of India has the GDP grown by 9 percent for four consecutive years. However, this growth hasn’t benefited the underprivileged majority. Like other places, Singrauli’s tribals have been hit hard by displacement, inflation and unemployment.

Interestingly, it’s the same place that is India’s electricity hub. India produces nearly 10 percent of its coal-based electricity from this area. Various agencies are already producing 15,000 MW here. And the government is planning to double the current capacity. The devastation caused by these projects is overwhelming; so one can imagine the consequences of such a move.

Many say that the PMO, coal and finance ministries were trying to dilute the Forest Rights Act to push for industries in forest areas. What does your research say?
Not just me, even the Greenpeace activists working there believe that forest rights have been violated or not properly implemented. In the film too, Tribal Affairs Minister Kishore Chandra Deo is acknowledging it.

Is it possible to separate politics from coal mining? Especially the way coal blocks were allegedly allotted without bidding and applying other transparent mechanisms?
We can’t remove politics from anything, be it economics or society. People may say that politics is dirty and they don’t want to touch it. It’s just like coal. You don’t want to touch dirty coal but you still want to enjoy the comfort of an air-conditioner at home. It’s a bit like that. So you can’t do without politics. Whenever you look at the problems of natural resources, it’s deeply entrenched in the political structure. Whether it is telecom spectrum, coal, iron ore, natural gas or land, the government is supposed to be the custodian of these resources that belong to the people. If the government is not a fair custodian or genuine trustee, then you have stories of crony capitalism. Look at the Coalgate scam, there are allegations that coal blocks were allotted to people who have no record of mining coal.

Are you among those who are asking for a policy or mechanism that deals with the funding of politicians by corporate giants?
Funding of political campaigns by corporates is a big issue. I believe it’s the fountainhead of corruption. We need to clean up the system. The manner in which an individual contests polls and the way political parties are funded need drastic reforms. People are talking about economic reforms. I think this is the most important reform that should be pushed before any other. It will entail an amendment in the conduct of election rules, amending the Representation of People’s Act, Income Tax Act, etc.

India will be mining more coal; the leftwing dissent will grow more. You say one-fourth of the geographical area is home to some of the poorest of the poor. Do you see India headed for social ruin and civil war?
I would like to be optimistic that we will not go in that direction. But that doesn’t make me wildly enthusiastic about the short-term future. I see a lot of chaos and anarchy. But I hope that out of this chaos and anarchy, there will be some positive and progressive development.

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1 COMMENT

  1. coal should not be mined at all. instead biomass should be converted through pyrolysis to producer gas and this latter used for all energy purposes from producing steel to electricity. this is a renewable and sustainable method that can be done in a decentralised manner and so empower the community instead of the capitalists!!

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