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India's big power blackout: Why coal hasn't been a savior

Some 600 million people lost electricity across India this week. The country relies on coal, which is neither helpful with peak power shortages, nor is regulated enough.

By Rebecca ByerlyCorrespondent / July 31, 2012

A building is seen dark following a power outage in Kolkata, India. India's energy crisis cascaded over half the country Tuesday when three of its regional grids collapsed, creating the world's biggest blackout.

AP Photo/Bikas Das

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Meghalaya, India

Gulam’s youthful brown eyes gaze at the coal mines just a few yards from the tiny thatched hut she shares with her family.

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The scene before her, in the Jaintia Hills of northeast India, looks like something out of an apocalyptic movie: mountains of tar-black coal, polluted orange rivers, and seemingly bottomless holes plunge more than a 100 feet beneath the earth’s surface.

Gulam’s father was killed in a mining accident. Her husband and adolescent brothers take grave risks in the mines: They duct-tape flashlights to their heads and climb hundreds of feet down rickety ladders, wearing flip-flops, and use rudimentary tools to extract coal from the mine’s narrow tunnels.

Workers like Gulam carry tons of coal out of the mines here each day to meet the growing energy needs of India’s 1.2 billion people. Roughly 70 percent of India’s electricity comes from coal power and because of India’s large coal reserves that number is set to rise. 

But reliance on coal has blackened lives and landscapes, and it hasn't always kept the lights on. 

This week, some 600 million people were plunged into darkness across India in what is reportedly the world’s largest power collapse. Coal experts like Justin Guay say it exposes the failure of a coal-fired grid to address the real problem: peak power shortages.

“Coal operates at a steady output 24 hours a day - it's baseload,” says Mr. Guay, the Washington Representative of the Sierra Club International Climate Program. “But coal can’t be ramped up quickly to accommodate quick peak surges in demand.”

He says solar energy, improved efficiency, and natural gas are much more plausible solutions for delivering energy when India needs it - at peak times, such as when millions flip on their air conditioners.

Coal barons in charge

In the meantime, coal is wreaking havoc on the environment, particularly here in the state of Meghalaya, where regulations simply do not apply. Coal mine owners, who are also politicians, run the state. And in their race to tap India’s coal resources, they are leaving behind a legacy of massive deforestation and water contamination that could have a ripple effect on the environment and health inside the world's second most-populous country and neighboring Bangladesh

The influence of the coal lobby has gotten so strong that one of the country's top ministers overseeing the environment hails from one of the biggest coal baron families in the state. 

Vincent Pala, the union minister of state for water resources, and his family have made a fortune in mining. He says he’s saddened that many of the rivers in the Jaintia Hills where he grew up no longer support life. But, he says, “future policies can only be made if they accommodate the coal business, too.”

Mr. Pala may officially have responsibility for clean water, but he has a personal financial interest in coal, points out Patricia Mukhim, the editor of The Shillong Times, Meghalaya's oldest and largest circulating English daily.

“The dichotomy is most of the rivers in Jaintia Hills where he’s from are already toxic and no longer support any life. But he has done and said nothing," says Ms. Mukhim, who is also a member of the National Security Advisory Board, which looks at the environment, water, and food security. "Politics is all about money and coal barons have all the money that politics demands. Coal barons can make or break a government.”

A mining policy was drafted by a committee set up by the state government eight years ago, but Mukhim says the clout of the coal lobby has prevented the state legislature from passing the bill. 

National laws exempted

India has a national mining law, and a right-to-education bill, along with a ratified United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The laws are supposed to protect workers and prevent children, like Gulam’s brothers, from working in the mines. But Meghalaya, a traditionally tribal area, is a “sixth-schedule” state, a special status that exempts it from India’s mining policy.

Essentially ruled by its own people, the state has an additional tier of governance called the autonomous district council that is supposed to safeguard and promote the culture and tradition of the land and resources. Mukhim says that instead of being responsible stewards of the land, leaders at all levels have abused the state’s special status.

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