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WATCH THIS! NGO Newsletter #7: Violence and Intimidation Don’t Stop Indian Activists Fighting Deadly Coal Plant

07 Nov 2013

Watch This! PDF (English)

What would you do if a massive coal plant that would poison your air and water broke ground adjacent to your home? What if your neighbors were forcibly removed to make room for the project? What if friends who attempted to protest the plant disappeared mysteriously? And what if this was not a new occurrence, but rather a story that has been repeated again and again for over 50 years? If you live in Singrauli, India this is your reality, and amazingly, the answer is you would still fight back.

 

Life in an Energy Sacrifice Zone

When I visited the district in 2011, I was told no one was an “original” resident. Everyone had been forcibly moved, many multiple times – first for the Rihand Dam, and after for the numerous coal projects in the area. And lest there be any doubt about how dangerous coal is, in 2012 pollution from coal-fired power plants caused 100,000 premature deaths in India (http://bit.ly/Zf6EjS).

Who is behind the push to exploit Singrauli’s resources at the expense of local communities? There is the state owned Coal India Limited, the world’s largest coal company, private corporations like Reliance Energy, which benefited from illegal land acquisitions in the coal-gate scandal that rocked India, and the U.S. government, which approved over $900 million in financing for Reliance Energy’s 4,000 MW Sasan coal-fired power plant and its associated mine. Lining up against these forces are local residents, tribal leaders, and labor interests, which must contend not only with the loss of their homes, their health, and their livelihoods, but also with government and police forces that operate hand in hand with corporate interests.

Nowhere to Turn: Violence and Intimidation

Back in 2011, I traveled to Harrahawa, a village with a school and running water whose residents were about to be forcibly displaced to make way for a coal ash pond to hold toxic waste from Sasan. Since then, Reliance has begun destroying their homes – without their permission or legal authority. As Krishna Das Saha explains, “No notice was given to us before our house was broken down. At night when we were sleeping a huge portion of our house was razed.” With no other option, villagers are forced to the rehabilitation colony, where a new school has been built for their children – only the makeshift structure cannot withstand the weather and is not functional (http://bit.ly/18Nmt7z).

A local labor leader, Sati Prasad Razak of the Sasan Ultra Mega Power Vistaphit Avam Mazdoor Sangh (Union Sasan Ultra Mega Power Affected and Labourers), told me how Reliance refuses to hire local workers, despite this being part of their agreement, due to fears that laborers will organize. It is also easier to cover up accidents and deaths if family members are not nearby, including a smokestack collapse that killed 30 workers. Sati Prasad also told me 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 (http://bit.ly/egIf4R).

Fighting Back: Standing Up to Powerful Interests

Despite the violence and intimidation, activists are unwilling to give up. On September 12, Sati Prasad submitted a letter on behalf of the to the District Magistrate 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. If these minimal demands were not met, he was prepared to lead a mass protest at Sasan’s main gates on September 19th (http://bit.ly/15P1iUG).

The response was swift and harsh. On September 18th, Sati Prasad was dragged out of his home on and arrested without a warrant (http://bit.ly/15c9UUX). He describes what happened next:

At night almost at 1 Am, I was taken to Inspector chamber. SP was already present there. He pointed constable to close the door. Officer asked me to take off my clothes. When I asked why? He abused me. Then I took off my clothes and just in my undergarments I was interrogated. Officer asked me again- (Abuse) “what you would have done tomorrow at Sasan gate?” I replied- Sir I would have demanded in front of company. He said- Ok! We are company and the bench lying in front of you are men. Now say what is your demand? I said- “ I would have said the same what I have mentioned in the letter submitted to you people too”. Then he abused me and yelled saying now go on with your speech, pointing towards police constable as they started beating me. I shouted why you are beating me. Police officer angrily ordered to beat me with stick. Then they tied both of my hands and afterwards I was heavenly beaten. (http://bit.ly/15TfF4M )

The next day, local villagers marched to Sasan, where police had barricaded the main gate. Despite being unarmed, they were told 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 (http://bit.ly/1bwhtaX). Awadhesh Kumar, president of the community organization Srijan Lokhit Samiti (and my team’s guide when I visited Singrauli), condemned Sati Prasad’s arrest and the subsequent security actions, 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 (http://bit.ly/15P1iUG )

Changing the Future

Projects like Sasan are advertised as a means to address the over 400 million people in India without access to electricity (http://bit.ly/kuMkxY), but the truth is that it is more profitable to send power over huge distances to industrial users. As I traveled around Singrauli, despite the tens of thousands of megawatts being generated all around me, I saw that local residents mostly lived in small dwellings without access to electricity. In fact, 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 (http://bit.ly/14ZgXiu).

The protests lead by Sati Prasad and others in Singrauli are not in vain. A grassroots movement is brewing across India and the globe as communities rise up to protest deadly coal projects (http://bit.ly/17JSfCX). Despite violence and intimidation, I firmly believe that the Sati Prasad’s of the world will eventually win. The documentation of the damage coal does to public health and local economies is too damning, and the demand from communities worldwide to move from dirty coal to clean energy is too great.

India is one of the top countries by number of CDM project implementation. Indian CDM authority has stipulated a sustainable criterion for such CDM projects. As per this criteria, the proposed CDM project should bring social, environmental, economic and technical well-being to the project site.Gujarat Forum on CDM, in collaboration with Carbon Market Watch was commissioned to visit-inquire-verify and then draft this report to check the ground reality of sustainable development criteria for selected CDM projects.11 CDM projects were selected according to their scale, location, surrounding communities and their contribution to sustainable development during October 2012 to March 2013. They were analysed based on available documents and field visits.The findings from each project are eye opening and surprising. Lack of social consideration has left many loopholes in the CDM process. People residing at the project site are not getting employment opportunities and their other means of livelihood are also in danger due to project development

By Nicole Ghio, Sierra Club International and Trade Representative