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India: Greenpeace and villagers vs. the world market
16 February 2015. A World to Win News Service. In New Delhi on 11 January, Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai was prevented from boarding her flight bound for London. Her name was on a no-fly list from Indian intelligence and “offloaded” was stamped on her passport, preventing her from international travel until that word is expunged. According to an affidavit by the Indian government, Pillai was travelling to London to “slam the government” for ignoring the interests of forest dwellers and others while pushing the Mahan coal mining project in Madya Pradesh.
Pillai told the Guardian: “I wanted to come to London to tell British MPs about what I’ve witnessed in Mahan. A community of 50,000 people has been fighting… Essar Energy, trying to save their forest home. Essar just wants to bulldoze the forest and replace it with a coal mine. It’s a classic David and Goliath fight, Indian villagers facing down billionaires as their rights are trampled on. The Indian government, the fossil fuel giants, the police – so many powerful interests are against them, but the people are standing with those villagers, and they can win this.”
Greenpeace says the Mahan coal mine project would dislocate over 50 villages whose people’s livelihood comes from the forest the project intends to destroy. It would cut down 500,000 trees, home to hundreds of migratory bird species and wildlife, contributing further to an already existing global environmental crisis.
Coal is one of the worst fossil fuels in terms of its impact on the environment. When burned these fuels release gases that trap the sun’s heat. The resulting “greenhouse effect” causes global warming, which in turn leads to climate extremes in various regions, from devastating floods to severe droughts, heat waves and more powerful hurricanes, not only in South Asia but worldwide. Scientific global climate models predict that climate extremes will become intensified as the planet continues to warm.
Fossil fuels are foundational to capitalist economies and can be extremely profitable to extract. But the capitalist countries are driven to only look out for their national interests when they convene at meetings like Kyoto or the most recent conference held in Lima last December. They are unable to solve the looming environmental disaster. Even if one individual capitalist wanted to, the laws of capital dictate that each must go for maximum profitability or risk being eaten up by other capitalists.
India is the world’s third largest user and producer of coal, after China and the U.S. The widespread burning of rubbish, coal and diesel fuel in Delhi has produced pollution so serious residents are starting to wear surgical masks against the choking smog. Scientists say the toxic air often rivals that of Beijing.
The Mahan coal mine plan is a joint project between Essar Energy and Hindalco Industries, both India-based multinationals operating in 25 and 40 countries respectively. Essar explores and produces oil and gas in India but also in Indonesia, Madagascar and Vietnam. Hindalco is a subsidiary of Birla Group, one of the world’s largest producers of aluminium, among other products.
The mining project began to take shape in 2006 but by 2011 was rejected by the Environment Minister, who acknowledged the risk to the forest’s rich biodiversity and added that, by the companies’ own admission, the coal mined there would last only 14 years. He was sacked by the government shortly after that decision.
In February 2014 the project received a green light from the government. Again Greenpeace and villagers mobilised to resist this renewed attack on their livelihood. They were sued by the Essar Group and fined an enormous amount of money.
After one government high court declared Pillai’s “offloading” inappropriate, a 12 February article in the Times of India reported that the government has written an affidavit justifying its action as in the national and economic interests. “Their [Greenpeace activists’] testimonies … form the basis of global think tank reports slamming India for its economic policies and serve to downgrade India’s ratings on various socio-economic indices. They are also used against India in international trade negotiations. Allowing sponsored foreign trips by Indian activists to badmouth the government on economic projects here is akin to permitting anti-national propaganda abroad,” said a government official.
Moving on different levels to suppress resistance, Prime Minister Narendra Modi requested that the government cut funding to India Greenpeace, as part of efforts to stifle dissent against his “development” agenda and kick-start stalled mining and other profitable industrial projects.
Efforts to protect the environment are extremely important, and standing alongside those on the bottom of society who depend on the environment to eke out a living is critical. Accusations by the government of crimes against the national interests are especially chilling, given the number of political prisoners in India.
India is trying to adjust its place in the world capitalist system and the Birla Group is among the Fortune 500, the world’s biggest companies. The government is doing the job it is designed to do, representing the interests of capital and repressing resistance to projects like Mahan. Coal mining can be extremely profitable in its own right, and cheap energy produced by coal is a critical factor in being able to competitively produce other commodities, including steel, aluminium and the many products made from them. Coal is also used in making pharmaceuticals. Many of these items are exported. In short, coal is a key element in Indian big business’ competitive advantage in the world capitalist system where the international market sets the terms. It is hypocritical for U.S. President Obama, who has approved fracking and offshore oil drilling projects, to criticise pollution in India when the Indian ruling class is serving its own particular needs in response to the international market, just like the U.S. ruling class that Obama represents.
The damage being done with the Mahan coal mining project is part of a worldwide problem that cannot be solved under the current system, a system that is in sharp contradiction with nature and humanity.