India must choose to be champion or villain for climate and development
In about two months, Modi will join other business and political leaders in New York to pledge what they will do to battle climate change. India is a climate lynchpin, as it has historically argued that southern countries cannot take action on climate change because they need to develop first. But countries like India can – and should – develop and tackle climate change at the same time.
Two villages in central India are demonstrating a choice between very different models of development: one, a person-centred approach based on zero emission clean energy; the other, corporate-centred and based on climate-wrecking coal.
Greenpeace and the local community in July 2014 launched a solar microgrid in Dharnai, a village in the state of Bihar that has not had electricity for over 30 years. Until now, the only power has come from expensive diesel generators and lighting from health-damaging kerosene lamps. The new microgrid, owned by the community themselves, powers more than 450 households and 50 commercial establishments, as well as street lights, two schools, one health centre, one farmer training centre and 10 water-pumping systems.
More than 300 million people in India (and 1.3 billion people worldwide) still lack access to electricity: in Bihar 82% of the population still rely on kerosene. Decentralised renewable energy offers the chance not only to deliver electricity directly, but also to create jobs and enhance the rural economy. Many income-generating activities require reliable access to energy, especially light. This is development at its best, allowing people to own and control their energy and targeting it to their needs.
While the community in Dharnai celebrates its electrification, another community – in the Mahan forest of Madhya Pradesh – struggles under the looming threat of a coalmine developed by Indian conglomerate Essar. Amelia is a village in Mahan of 2,000 people who earn sustainable income by collecting and selling seasonal forest produce such as mahua flowers and tendu leaves. The company’s plan is to cut down forest to make way for the coalmine, meaning local residents would lose these livelihoods, and the energy produced would be for industry; not people.
Greenpeace has been working with the local community for more than three years to help them defend their rights. The villagers have organised themselves through MSS, (Mahan Sangharsh Samiti or Mahan Struggle Organisation), and are engaged in peaceful mass direct action to stop the mine. But they are very concerned about what’s happening. The Jabalpur high court is currently looking into allegations that villagers’ signatures were forged in the gram sabha resolution to show approval for the mine.
The other way coal will hold back development, and especially food production, is climate change. In India up to 40% of current CO2 emissions come from coal-burning, making India the world’s third largest emitter of carbon dioxide, after China and the US. And in cases like Mahan and across central India, where coal reserves are located under forest, there is a climate double whammy of cutting trees while also burning more coal.
In spite of “sabka saath, sabka vikas”, Modi’s vision of development so far looks more like Amelia than Dharnai. In its first few weeks in office, his government has already made it easier for companies to clear forests for coal. For example, last week it launched a new, one-stop online shop for corporations to apply to cut forests for mines and other projects, which doesn’t seem to have been accompanied by any tightening of monitoring and compliance mechanisms.
But now Modi has an opportunity in New York, not only to give reality to the slogan, but also to make India a leader of the 21st century. He should showcase Dharnai as a combined development and climate solution that could leapfrog the outdated technologies of the west. He could also provide funding to replicate Dharnai, for example from taxes on coal.
This story of two villages illustrates the choice faced by India, and indeed by developing countries. A choice between future and past, between light and dark, between people and corporate profit.