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April 14, 2011

Sierra Club India Trip - Part 3 of More Perspectives

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 and part 2 of her write-up. 

The timing of today's post is particularly critical, as Nicole discusses Reliance Energy's 4,000 MW Sasan coal-fired power plant, and the $900 million in financing the U.S. Export-Import Bank approved for the project. Today, the U.S. Export-Import Bank Bank approved $800 million in financing for Eskom's 4,800 MW Kusile coal-fired power plant in South Africa, which is being built in an area that already exceeds pollution limits. Moreover, Apartheid era deals locking in low rates for industry mean local residents are forced to pay for the plant in higher rates, which is actually decreasing electricity access
I have never seen a concentration of coal fired power plants like I did in Singrauli. You can stand in one place and see a 2,000 MW, at 3,260 MW, and another 2,000 MW plant directly in front of you. Entire villages are displaced to make room for the toxic ash left behind by these facilities.

And because the Singrauli district actually crosses two provinces, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, air pollution blowing over the border doesn’t “count” as affecting the adjoining province, providing a convenient way for the companies and provinces to avoid taking responsibility by suggesting it is the other’s problem. But Reliance Energy’s Sasan power plant is special. Once completed, this ultra-mega power plant will generate 4,000 MW of power, and it will do so with the backing of the U.S. government. 

The Sierra Club fought Sasan, and we won, at first. The U.S. Export-Import Bank originally rejected financing for the plant because it violates the Bank’s congressionally mandated carbon policy, but then they reversed the decision due to pressure from the Administration. In the end, the Bank approved $900 million in U.S. taxpayer financing for Bucyrus to export equipment for Sasan. According to Bank officials, Sasan is a model project. It’s easy to be a model project when there’s no one watching. 

First, Awadesh took us to meet with an employee of one of the Singruali Northern Coalfield Limited (NCL) sects. A little background: Coal India Limited (CIL) is Indian state controlled coal company, and it is divided into seven zones. Northern Coalfield Limited (NCL) is one of these zones, and it includes Singrauli. Singrauli has then been further divided into nine sectors, including the sector this employee works for. He explained to us how the former Chief Managing Director of NCL met with a high level official at Reliance. After this meeting, the Moher basin was allotted to Reliance for the construction Sasan without the proper paperwork, raising legal questions. Now the former Chief Managing Director of NCL works is the General Manager of Sasan. 

But that’s not all he told us. During construction, the smokestack at Sasan collapsed and at least thirty workers were killed, but with the deaths swept under the rug it is difficult to give an exact number. When we saw the plant later in the day, we were told it won’t be ready for its scheduled 2013 start date due to setbacks from the collapse. 

With the background in place, we picked up Kalika Prasad Gupta, an activist who fled to Singrauli and began working as a journalist before the companies forced him out of his job for printing material that was not favorable to their projects. Now he owns a small shop and prints a private newspaper. It was Kalika who took us to meet the communities impacted by Sasan. 

Family Our first stop was the relocated village that Shankar Dayal calls home. He and his family live only a few hundred yards from the displacement zone around Sasan. As we sat in his hut surrounded by his children, he told us how villagers are forced to put up with trucks rumbling by only meters from their homes, how the hand water pumps barely function, the lack of electricity despite living in India’s power center, and a lack of employment despite the industrial development all around them. But at least they have a home. His friends living inside the Sasan displacement zone will be moved again to another unfamiliar location. 

Then we went to see the monster itself. Like the other plants we saw, Reliance is erecting a wall around the plant, displacing four villages inside its premises. The wall is meant to keep people out, but our hosts warned that it also keeps what goes on inside the plant secret from prying eyes. Nearly completed, we stood at the edge of the last strip of the wall waiting to be erected, and next to the last huts waiting to be bulldozed. We quickly attracted attention. 

Sati Prasad approached us and identified himself as a local labor leader. Sati told us how his friend Sudarshan Rajak attempted to protest Sasan, and how his house was bulldozed on May 9th, 2009. Sidarshan hasn’t been seen since. Building He also told us how Reliance refuses to hire local workers, despite this being part of their agreement, due to fears that laborers will organize. As if to prove his point, a group of contract workers from Assam arrived, and we learned how they sign a contract to work for Rupees 160 per day (around $4), get on a truck, and go wherever the contractor takes them -- in this case to Singrauli, far from their northeastern province. 

Awadesh, being the good organizer he is, couldn’t let this pass. He assembled a crowd of villagers to hear their stories, urged them to band together despite their fears, and promised to come and rally with them if they take action. He was passionate, he was earnest, and I wish I could understand what he was saying. But this was Awadesh at his best. 

But there was one more place we had to visit before we could leave Sasan behind, Harrahawa village. This wasn’t a relocated village, but rather an established village with a school, farming, and trees -- something rare in Singrauli. And once Sasan is completed, it will be a coal ash pond. 

We met with villagers outside of Savatri’s home, and they told us they have heard of the place they are relocating to thirteen kilometers away, but only a few people have seen it. They live with their entire families: parents, children, and in-laws. How will they survive on a plot of land allotted only to the two people on the deed? Where will they farm? How will they support themselves? 
The villagers don’t know when they will be relocated, or what it will be like where they are going, only that it is coming. We had a Frisbee with us, and Glen and Cesia showed the children how to throw it while I took pictures and spoke to some of the women. But it was Shivam’s translation that, once again, summed up the situation perfectly. It was sad to watch these children play in the shade of the mango tree at their home, knowing that too soon this will all be gone. However, we can’t be sad that they are leaving, because if they try to stay, the police will come and beat them. 


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