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September 20, 2013

Violence and Intimidation Continue to Plague Opponents of U.S. Supported Indian Coal Plant


The toll coal takes on communities across India is staggering: 100,000 premature deaths annually, a $33 billion "coal-gate" scandal, and financial collapse that is pushing plants to the brink of bankruptcy, but only after families have been forcibly evicted to make way for deadly projects. From the outside, Reliance Energy's 4,000 MW coal-fired power plant, under construction in Singrauli, appears no different than any other risky coal project in the country. But Sasan received over $900 million in financing from the U.S. government through the U.S. Export-Import Bank, despite opposition from grassroots groups in India and the U.S.

Now, reports are emerging that a local labor leader, Sati Prasad Razak, was dragged out of his home on the night of September 18 and arrested -- without a warrant -- less than 48 hours before a mass protest against Sasan was set to take place. The police continue to hold him and two others in custody, but refuse to give any information on charges against the three. On September 19, a group of villagers marched to Sasan, where police had barricaded the main gate. Despite being unarmed, they were warned that they could be arrested under section 144 of Indian Penal Code, which allows for the arrest of members of an "unlawful assembly" if they possess a deadly weapon or object that could be used as a deadly weapon.


Local activist and President of Srijan Lokhit Samiti, Awadhesh Kumar, condemned the arrest, saying: "This is an attempt to suppress the voices of the local communities. Reliance cannot use suppression as a tactic for long. They have to address the pertinent issues raised by the people, about jobs, compensation and health impacts. It's a shame that the local administration is hand in glove with the company."

I first met Awadhesh in 2011, when he invited the Sierra Club to visit Singrauli and see for ourselves the devastation wreaked by Sasan and the other massive coal projects sandwiched in the region. Nothing could have prepared us for what we witnessed. We met a tribal family that survived by "harvesting" the toxic ash from a coal ash disposal pond and drew their water from a small hand pump that went under the waste site. We met an employee of the state owned coal company, who told us about the illegal coal block allotments Reliance received long before the revelation of such deals rocked the country. We met a village with a school and running water that was going to be forcibly displaced to make way pond to hold Sasan's toxic coal ash waste. And we met Sati Prasad, who told us how Reliance refuses to hire local workers, despite this being part of their agreement, due to fears that laborers will organize. And he told us about his friend, Sudarshan Rajak, whose house was bulldozed after he protested against Sasan and the forced removals. Sudarshan Rajak was never seen again, and Sati Prasad believed he was inside his home when it was destroyed.

Perhaps most troubling of all, projects like Sasan are advertised as a means to address the over 400 million people in India without access to electricity, but the truth is that they service the wealthy and industrial sector, while leaving the people who need power the most in the dark. As we traveled around Singrauli, despite the tens of thousands of megawatts being generated all around them, local residents mostly lived in small dwellings without access to electricity. It was more profitable to send the power over huge distances, despite grid losses, to industrial centers. The truth is large, centralized coal projects like Sasan are terrible at addressing energy access. The International Energy Agency (IEA) found that in order to reach 100 percent energy access, half of all energy services must be provided by off-grid clean energy. In fact, when the 2012 blackouts left over 600 million people in India without power, those with access to solar were able to keep the lights on.

While the people of Singrauli are forced to contend with the deadly health and economic consequences of these massive power projects, they see none of the benefits. They don't have access to the electricity generated, and they don't have access to good jobs. Sati Prasad Razak and the Sasan Ultra Mega Power Vistaphit Avam Mazdoor Sangh (Union Sasan Ultra Mega Power Affected and Labourers) are not making unreasonable demands. They are asking for documentation of the people who have been affected by Sasan, for permanent jobs for project affected people working on a contract basis, for the payment of back wages owed to local contract workers, and for a halt to construction of a boundary wall until displaced people are adequately compensated. For this, they were put in jail, and we do not know when or if they will be released.

-- Nicole Ghio, Sierra Club's International Campaign


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