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.
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“The councils should have judiciously allowed coal mining under strict environmental safeguards,” says Mukhim. “But neither the councils, the state government, nor the local traditional institutions, showed any sense of environmental responsibility.”Skip to next paragraph
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Where are the regulations?
For people like Gulam, who hails from the neighboring state of Assam, mining policies changes can’t come soon enough.
In July, 15 miners were killed, and a dozen more narrowly escaped when a tunnel they were mining in another area of the state flooded. The owner of the mine waited five days to report the miners missing and call a search. Most deaths in the mines go undocumented, and medical care is virtually nonexistent.
“Imagine the 2010 Upper Big Branch mining catastrophe in West Virginia that killed 29 miners – on steroids,” says Guay with the Sierra Club. “The rudimentary, unregulated mining in Meghalaya is like the Wild West of 19th-century America. But it does not have to be this way. There is no need to put workers’ safety and local environments at risk from coal.”
The environmental repercussions of mining is part of life for people in the coal belt.
“We have to buy all of our water from a town several kilometers away,” says Gulam, pointing to the ash-covered water jugs in the corner of her smoky kitchen. “The water here has acid from the coal mines. If you bathe with it, your hair will fall out and it will burn your skin.”
Despite being one of the wettest places on earth, much of the water from the Ummutha River that flows through the Jaintia Hills is no longer drinkable.
A report by the Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board says the acid runoff from active and abandoned coal mines is one of the major causes of water pollution. The report found that water from several of the rivers around the Jaintia Hills is not fit for consumption. The pH value in many of the tested areas ranged from 2.7 to 4.3. That is significantly lower than the desirable limit of 6.5 to 8.5 prescribed by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) for drinking water.
The environmental degradation is evident. The putrid orange or, in some cases, chemically tainted aqua blue color of the rivers here is an ominous warning of the toxic chemicals flowing through it. The fish are dead, and crops no longer grow because the soil is too dry and acidic.
“People are beginning to understand the environmental impacts of coal mining in Meghalaya,” says Hasina Kharbhih, the founder of Impulse Network, a non-governmental organization that focuses on child trafficking, health, and livelihood support initiatives in northeast India. “But with such powerful politicians with vested interest in coal mining, it is very difficult to do anything about it.”
How to protect the environment
The Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board recommended several solutions for improving the environment. They included filling abandoned mines to prevent acid in the mines from draining into the water table, proper management of acid mine drainage in mining areas, installing a water treatment plant, and framing a state mining policy for regulation of unorganized mining activities.
Mukhim is doubtful that any of these policy recommendations will be implemented. She says that like most things in India, the fate of the people and environment hangs on the next election.
“Meghalaya is headed to the polls in 2013,” says Mukhim. “The coal lobby is strategically identifying candidates for the state constituencies, and it is very likely that the lobby will only become more powerful after elections.”
For Gulam and her family, who say they know next to nothing about the politics of the state, the dangerous work continues. Pieces of rock fly past her unprotected eyes as she and her brothers crush coal with a hammer. “These are the difficulties we face,” she says. “We know we are at the mercy of the mines.”
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