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Pure air or coal? The thorny dilemma facing India

Thick gray dust floats over the Singrauli open pit coal mine in India, where gigantic excavators carry the fuel that contributes to economic growth, but also to the country’s environmental pollution.

Singrauli’s open pit mines illustrate the dilemma facing the world’s second most populous country and explain its resistance to the phase-out of coal, proposed during the recent climate summit. COP26 the Glasgow.

India seeks to better spread the benefits of development among its population of 1.3 billion, many of whom lack electricity.

But the price to pay is high. In Singrauli, where there are more than a dozen coal-fired mines and power plants, soot coats trees, houses, cars and even cows.

A sticky dark mud lines the roads, while trucks, trains and cable cars carry huge mounds of coal, whose black dust envelops passers-by.

“Contaminated to the extreme”

Everyone is condemned to breathe in the terrible dust and acrid air that irritates the eyes and throat.

“Our air, our water and the whole environment are contaminated to the extreme. Even the cows here look like buffaloes, ”said Sanjay Namdev, a trade unionist, as cranes and containers buzzed around him in a sea of ​​coal.

“But forget the phase-out, it is impossible to phase out coal in a country like India,” he admitted.

“Millions of people depend on coal for cheap electricity,” he explained. “I don’t see how one day will end,” he added.

As Asia’s third-largest economy develops, their appetite for coal is growing and the middle class needs electricity for their air conditioners and refrigerators.

Coal consumption, which powers 70% of the Indian electricity grid, has doubled in the last decade. Only China consumes more.

And as international pressure mounts, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced in October that India aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2070, a decade after China and 20 years later than other major CO2 emitters.

Despite being the third largest emitter in the world, the government emphasizes that its emissions per inhabitant are lower than the US average.

Future without coal

Some 30,000 workers in the Singrauli mines and thousands of substitute workers, worry about the future without Coal. Climate change seems less threatening to them despite the increasingly torrid heat and deluge of rains they face.

“Pollution is serious here. I know very well that it is bad for your health, but what am I going to do if the coal mines close? How am I going to feed my children? ”Asked Vinod Kumar, a 31-year-old miner.

Northern Coalfields, a public mining company that owns more than 80% of Singrauli’s coal assets and produces 130 million tonnes per year of the ore, claims to try to make its operations less polluting.

“We want to move to a completely green coal,” said Ram Vijay Sing, spokesman for the society. “Every year we organize free consultations to attend to the health problems of the local population.”

Environmentalists claim that such piecemeal measures serve no specific purpose.

“There are machines and techniques that can reduce pollution, but companies don’t take them seriously,” according to trade unionist Namdev.

“There are anti-pollution guidelines but they elude them with total impunity,” he added. “The only thing they worry about is quick profits,” he insisted.

Coal mines and related sectors employ more than 13 million people in India, according to Harjeet Singh, an expert and member of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative, an international network of civil society organizations.

“A brutal abolition of coal in India could bring economic disruption,” he warned.

“In a country where much of the population depends on coal for their income and energy, we must ensure social justice in the transition to a future without fossil fuels,” added Singh.

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