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Burning Coal: Embers of a Critical Land

By: The Matter Collective

Coal is a non-renewable source of energy. 

We have all read this in our school textbooks, and could maybe use a recap. 

Due to the pressure on organic matter, coal was formed over millions of years, metres below the rocks and dirt we walk on. When we say non-renewable, we mean that the coal we have and use today is all our species is going to see before we go extinct. Over another millennium, the planet will make more, but our industries will not be around to use any of it. 

The harmful effects of coal and the increase in contents of air pollutants are not exactly new knowledge. As far back as 1306, King Edward I was known to have prohibited the sale and burning of sea-coal in London, to improve the air quality of the city. Many acts, parliamentary laws and other legislation have since been passed around the world to help remedy the situation. 

Coal ho naa ho?

The modern environmental movement against coal consumption began in the 19th century, but even today, coal-fired power plants are responsible for 40% of total fossil fuel emissions, causing lethal environmental damage.

In the modern world, apart from localized legislation, countries are coming together to ponder upon the sustenance of our species and the quality of life hereafter. 

One such global initiative was set by the UNGA (United Nations General Assembly) in 2015- the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs, within their 2030 Agenda. These goals, apart from highlighting the sustainable use of fossil fuels like coal, also acknowledge the need to envision a future for all, and not look at environmental justice and global climate action concerns in silos. 

Artwork by Mudita Pasari

What do India’s efforts look like?

Close to home, India became the 62nd nation to join the Paris Agreement and made a strong move in 2016 towards renewable energy by launching the International Solar Alliance. The ISA is an alliance between India and France with a core focus on solar power utilization.

The Alliance in partnership with the World Bank launched the Global Solar Atlas– a free online tool that enables governments and investors to check the average annual solar power potential in any part of the world and identify potential sites for solar power development. In January 2018, India announced the establishment of a $350 million dollar solar development fund to finance projects and work with France to devise long term strategies for low-greenhouse gases emissions by 2020.

While the solar efforts continue, India has set a very difficult target at emission reduction of increasing renewable energy from 22% to 40% by 2030.

While Coal burns in our homeland

The recent auction of 38 coal mines (earlier 41) for commercial mining in India has sparked a debate about saving a post-pandemic plummeting economy v/s putting climate action at stake. If we fail to act today, factors like global warming will torment the generations to follow and wipe us off the planet in the centuries to come.

Although dramatic, as per scientific data, if we are unable to curb the current rate of global warming by 2040, there will be no turning back for the human species. Currently perceived as anomalies in weather patterns– extreme cold/drought, devastating wildfires/hurricanes/floods will soon become our seasonal markers instead.* 

Infographic by Priya Kini

So, Who Is Bearing the Brunt in the Name of Development?

Amid these coal-d wars between the economy and the environment, it is the latter that suffers the most. Unchecked mining damages our biodiversity, pollutes our already scarce water resources and severely affects the indigenous peoples living in the areas, where coal is mined. These illegal coal mining activities lead to thousands of lives being stripped off of the land, that is rightfully theirs, and forced to take its protection in their own hands.

Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) is the oldest national park in the state of Maharashtra but even regions of such rich heritage face the risk of being completely cut off from surrounding forests if new coal mining ventures are enabled. Wildlife Experts Praveen Bhargav, Biswajit Mohanty and environmental lawyer Rahul Choudhary did a study together called Undermining Tadoba’s Tigers wherein they explained how the Tigers won’t get the chance to move to the neighboring woods, which can lead to demobilization and cause the extinction of the tiger population.

The only practical approach the government had to offer was afforestation – appalling is the government’s belief that whole ecological systems can be compensated through planting trees.

The practice of approving coal mining projects comes from turning a blind eye to destruction of wildlife and forest connectivity, erosion, altering entire landscapes, deterioration of drinking water and air pollution

The current status

Even as the country went through a lockdown –– starting in March 2020 –– to control the spread of COVID-19, there was one thing that stood the test of time – India’s love for coal. Even though everything was shut and life as we knew it stopped, our country still held on to coal’s hand. In fact, it was coal that she turned to, to save its crumbling economy.

Infographic by Mudita Agarwal

The Invincible Coal

By August 2020, during the lockdown, India’s thermal coal imports fell nearly 20%, due to a drop in power demand, as reported by Iman Resources. This drop resulted in a decline in coal-fired power to 60% as compared to 71.2% in March 2020.

However, this set back was temporary; in the first fortnight of September, coal’s share in power rose to 66% due to an increase in power demand as the “unlock” replaced the “lockdown” and the relationship began to thrive again.

Life for One, Death for Another?

To revive the dying economy, the Indian Government again took out its “Brahmastra” – COAL – and decided to boost commercial coal mining. It recently announced an auction of  41 coal blocks in June 2020 under the “Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan” or the self-reliant India mission. This number was revised to 38 in September 2020.

What now?

Coal is sewn into our cultural, moral and economic fabric. 

Today, coal is a necessity but it’s negating effect on our planet’s lifespan should be a cue for us to start looking for ways to make its mining more sustainable; by harnessing Coal-bed Methane and finding ways to reclaim mined swathes of land.

And while we working on coal’s sustainability, let’s look at alternative Energy sources that could be big players in the distant future:

Poster by Unnati Sharma

In our publication with the same title, we have presented to you multiple sides of the current situation. We acknowledge the present and hope for a better future. Not just for ourselves alone, but for the continuation of our species, as a whole. 

In all of this, what worries us the most, is the ethics of measuring the profit generated from coal mines against the human cost paid by those living on, and off the land. While you and I can afford to have this debate from the comfort of our homes with a blasting air conditioner while twittering away our opinions, the people on the lowest rung of the ladder lose not just land and livelihood, but their voices and senses of identity–– bound to the soil and their homes.

And more than the above, it is only ethical to start measuring the human cost of a coal mine before auctioning it to a private profit maker. Because, for a country obsessed with numbers, one can hope that the total loss of human lives may someday elicit more response from us than the sound of a 5 trillion-dollar economy. 

But until then, we have blood on our hands.

(Link to the Publication)

(The Matter has used initial research conducted and documented by Sushmita Rai, translated into a content and communication strategy by Komal Jain, Mudita Pasari and Noora Yasmin. The publication is designed by Nidhi Singh Rathore specifically for mobile devices. Using online project management tools and support from many individuals, this collaborative effort has taken fruit during the global Pandemic (COVID 19). The above article is a short compilation of the publication, developed by Komal Jain.)

(Written pieces by Ankur Gangwal, Baani Arora, Helly Solanki, Mudita Pasari, Raunaq Bajaj, Sushmita Rai and others who wish to remain anonymous. Supporting content is prepared by Komal Jain and Mudita Pasari)

The Matter Collective

The Matter Collective

The Matter Collective is a professional collaborative network of Indian creatives from all over the country and the world. Currently, with over 40 contributors across 12 Indian states and 4 countries, we are growing steadily and attempting to create and curate relevant easy to consume content, related to environmental justice and climate action. Our long term goal is to push for environmental democracy and better environmental laws.

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