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November 14, 2014

Despite Crackdown, Indian Courts Side With Public Health, Against Coal

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In a huge victory for local communities, public health, and the rule of law, yet another enormous proposed coal plant has been denied clearance in India.

In another major setback for the expansion of the coal industry, a panel of judges rejected the environmental clearance (EC) for the 3,600-megawatt IL&FS coal-fired power plant in Tamil Nadu, India. The judges upheld an appeal from local villagers determined to halt the project over concerns about water and air pollution in an already critically polluted area. These are the same concerns that were hastily ignored by the project’s backers -- who, rather than conducting a thorough Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA),  haphazardly slapped one together in a mere two weeks.

Luckily for these villagers, the Indian court system is robust.

The information provided by the project’s backers was almost totally absent, including a lack of any baseline data, a limited scope for the study area -- where at least 45 industrial projects are already contributing to a critically polluted area -- and the use of the 2005 National Ambient Air Quality Standard (a convenient year for which standards don’t exist).  Given the missing information, the court had no choice but to deny clearance.

But while the court’s decision may seem like an easy one, consider the political context in which it took place. Since taking office,  India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged to do everything in his power to expand the coal industry from reopening mines closed by the Indian Supreme Court, to relaxing environmental rules, to streamlining and speeding up environmental clearances -- all of this while conducting a targeted witch hunt of local and international environmental and public health organizations for daring to question the wisdom of coal expansion.

But this week’s court decision shows that India’s democracy is indeed robust. The system of checks and balances, of which the courts are a part, is capable of surviving harsh political environments and delivering justice. Neither the whims of new governments, nor powerful corporations, can change that -- though try they might.

Most importantly, it shows that the courts are responsive to local resistance, a stance that will go a long way in boosting the morale of communities challenging dirty energy.

-- Justin Guay, Associate Director, International Climate Program

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