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Battle rages over Mahan as India’s coal mines called into question

India’s coal mines

Local villagers have been opposing a new coal mine in the Mahan forest. Photo Credit: Avik Roy/Greenpeace

India’s Supreme Court has ruled that all of the country’s mining licenses awarded between 1993 and 2010 are illegal, a move, which could potentially see 218 licences, cancelled across the country.

Last week, the BBC reported that the court had found successive governments had given rights to mine coal to both state and private companies in a manner which was “not fair and transparent” and without competitive bidding.

The country has lost $210 billion because coalfield rights were sold of cheaply.

All of India’s main political parties that governed the country between 1993 and 2010, including the current Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government are implicated by the ruling.

The court is now to examine whether licenses granted in this time should be cancelled.

One of the world’s largest producers of coal, more than half of India’s commercial energy needs are met by the energy source.

The Case of Mahan

But while a dark cloud hangs over the future of these licences, in the country’s Madhya Pradesh region another battle rages as villages fight against a proposed new coal mine in the region’s 1,000 square kilometre Mahan forest.

The project, proposed by Mahan Coal Ltd – a joint venture by two of the country’s largest mining firm, Essar Energy and Hindalco Industries – is expected to result in the felling of about 400,000 trees, and would adversely impact livelihoods in the region.

Some villagers, supported by Greenpeace, have opposed the project saying it will destroy timber, leaves and seeds of the centuries-old Sal forest on which they depend on for income.

And as the village of Amelia – with a population of 3,500 – is expected to have its say on the project, in a vote coming up in the coming months, are facing many hurdles.

Under Indian law, a democratic process called a Gram Sabha, a community should have a say, the vote – a second attempt after a 2013 vote was called off over forged signatures – has faced delays, while Greenpeace say the those opposing the project have faced intimidation and threats.

They say residents have been threatened with physical violence, had hate-speeches targeted against them and that bribes of alcohol and money are being offered for a positive vote.

Greenpeace India’s Priya Pillai said:

The Mahan coal mine is not only placing the climate at risk, but will also destroy the livelihoods of thousands of people who depend on the Mahan forest for survival. The ongoing crackdown against forest rights activists will not deter our resolve but only makes us more determined to save the Mahan forest.

India’s energy future

While coal continues to grip the headlines in Mahan, across the country, reports show India is starting its shift away from dirty energy and into renewables.

According to an unconfirmed report, India is planning to dramatically scale up its deployment of wind energy to 10,000MW annually – a five-fold increase on existing plans.

As India is already the world’s fifth largest producer of wind energy, such an expansion of wind generation, coupled with new Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s desire to speed solar development and tax coal, will be another nail in the coffin for the coal industry.

The developing world wants clean energy.

Renewables are already more economic than fossil fuels, and they will only get cheaper over time. The installed cost of electricity from wind in India is Rs4.60/kWh – this is materially lower than the Rs5-6/KWh of imported-coal.

It is not only more logical for poor, disparate communities to locally generate what they need, it is more just to not lock them into a fuel purchase cycle when they don’t need to be.

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