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February 28, 2011

Sierra Club India: Ramesh's Reversal?

Indian environment minister Jairam Ramesh has been called India's green revolutionary, its green crusader; A title not undeserved for a minister able to defy king coal by securing a tax on its production and calling for an environmental levy on mining in addition to the wide array of laudable actions the Indian government is taking under the National Action Plan on Climate Change (PDF).

These actions, which firmly supported the concept that polluters pay, have placed Jairam Ramesh on a collision course with industries and ministries bent on business as usual. This includes high profile showdowns with UK based Vedanta who had plans to displace villagers in order to mine Bauxite in the Nyamgiri hills and the Indian Coal ministry over the "go/no-go" decisions to develop coal projects in forest zones nationwide.

India Kids Fly ash 1

Indian children protect themselves from coal ash.

But after an impressive bout of standing up to destructive development it seems the green revolutionary may be changing his colors. Among the most problematic in his recent project clearance spree have been clearances for a 10,000 megawatt nuclear power project in Maharashtra, a $12-billion steel plant to be built by South Korean firm Posco in Orissa, and the lifting of a moratorium on new projects in 8 highly polluted areas across India.

Perhaps the most blatant reversal being the green light to the Posco plant in Orissa, which stands in direct contrast to his earlier scrapping of the Vedanta mining operation. Most worrying though is the pressure by the Coal Ministry, to increase the "go" areas for coal mining to 90%.

Increasing coal development is leading to private land grabs that make states like Chattisgarh resemble the Heart of Darkness from Conrad's nightmares. It's no surprise that these same communities in the tribal belt of India - where much of the mineral wealth is extracted - feed instability and Naxal violence that have destabilized the nation to the point that the government has called on the military to quell violence.

In addition to this terror, a recent Harvard study shows that coal is  2-4 times more expensive when horrendous health and climate impacts are included. In the United States these "hidden" costs of coal are as much as $500 billion annually. There is of course nothing hidden about these costs to communities across India, which are dealing with a coal ash crisis that is creating hell on earth for communities unlucky enough to be living near coal plants.
India Kids Fly ash 2

The truth is 400 million Indians have grown tired of waiting for coal fired electricity to reach them particularly as they bear the brunt of its pollution. They are in fact openly questioning why new coal? But the people need a champion; not a rubber stamp that allows those in whose name coal plants are built to be trampled upon in the process.

Perhaps it is time for Ramesh to draw some inspiration from Malaysia, which recently scrapped plans for a new coal fired power plant after local communities demanded a thorough alternatives assessment be conducted.

The results of the assessment included a combination of energy efficiency measures, and renewable energy underscoring a worldwide trend that shows that these sources of energy are increasingly cheaper, and more efficient than new coal fired power plants.

For those of us supporting the brave struggles of India's David fighting a Goliath of coal development we are waiting, watching, hoping for the Green Revolutionary to reawaken.

-- Justin Guay, Sierra Club International Program


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