Daphne Wysham, co-director of the Sustainable Energy & Economy Network sends the following from Angul, Orissa, the heart of India’s Coal Belt, on March 15, 2007:

The smell of burning coal in household fires hangs in the air. Bicyclists carry heavy bags of coal from the mines to sell for a few rupees. They are overtaken by huge lorries carrying more than the tonnage they are supposed to carry — all part of the black market in coal — down busy streets, with cattle lying nonchalantly on the road.

We visited communities that were literally on the edge of the coal mines, who had nowhere else to go, having received no compensation for their land, taken by the coal companies and the World Bank. In the heat of the summer they tell us, the temperature in these communities can reach over 130 degrees F. Spontaneous combustion of coal in the open-pit mines cannot be extinguished. Water is polluted and far away. Health care and education is non-existent. Heavy energy-intensive industry is everywhere in Angul: aluminum smelters, steel mills, sponge iron factories.

As we drove to a village on the outskirts of the dirtiest aluminum smelter in the country, Nalco, we were forced to stop as a parade of men dressed in bright orange dress, paint on their faces, were banging drums and cymbals, celebrating the festival of holi, the arrival of spring. They celebrate in colorful garb in their villages as they do every spring although just down the road, on the outskirts of the state-owned Nalco smelter, their cattle are dying in droves from bone-crippling fluorosis — caused by the excessive fluoride produced from smelting aluminum — and other undiagnosed diseases.

The people and animals have small tumors on their bodies; the women complain of arthritis-like symptoms and swollen joints that make it hard to do their daily work; the children show signs of genetic malformations. One boy we saw had seven fingers on each hand, and six toes on each foot. Another boy was deaf and retarded, his teeth also weakened, possibly by the fluoride. All the malformed children were born after the aluminum smelter was established here. Many of the women cannot be married if the men learn where they are from; similarly, cattle cannot be sold from this community. it is well-known that here a severe poisoning has taken place at the hands of Nalco.

Orissa has become a magnet for energy-intensive industries — domestically and internationally over the past decade thanks to at least three factors:

  1. World Bank-enforced privatization and deregulation of the power sector, combined with no/lax enforcement of environmental and labor laws, have made coal-fired power here among the cheapest in the world.
  2. Other minerals such as bauxite and iron ore are found in abundance beneath the soil.
  3. The rights of the tribal people, who were traditionally oppressed by the British and now the Indians, are ignored in this rush to industrialize, and kept in a state of seemingly intentional helplessness and illiteracy.
  4. I would add to this, as pure speculation based on some research, that the Kyoto Protocol is also creating an incentive for energy-intensive industries in the North to set up shop in a country such as India, where greenhouse gas emissions restrictions are non-existent. They can not only benefit from the lax labor and environmental laws, now, under the Clean Development Mechanism, they can also profit by turning fly ash to bricks, and earn money from carbon credits sold to Northern polluters.

We visited one facility where the highly toxic fly ash, loaded with heavy metals and other toxins, was being combined with sand and other substances, to make the bricks. This is one way of disposing of the abundant supply of fly ash produced when the coal in Orissa is burned. Indian coal has a very high ash content, so this kills two birds with one stone.

It may also kill the day laborers who are making these bricks without any sort of protective gear in the hot Indian sun. Yesterday, we arrived on a slow train throught the arid landscape of Orissa to the town of Sambalpur. We met with government officials, who assured us that polluting industries were being taxed at five percent and that this revenue was being reinvested in the affected communities. But when we visited the communities, we saw how little money had been spent. A school had been taken over by security for the coal company, and not replaced. As a result, one teacher has a small classroom filled with over 80 students, of all grades.

Last night, after another round of meetings with villagers on the margins of the coal mines, I was invited to give a talk to local activists, academics, and others on climate change. They were eager to know more about the strange weather they are experiencing here and all over India. Orissa has experienced famines in the past. Its agriculture is almost entirely rain-fed, and so many small farmers are one season’s drought away from starvation.

The combination of the deforestation, the open pit coal mines, and the land clearance by the tribal people for rice paddies is certainly adding to the change in local climate, and resulting in a drop in water tables. But I fear this region will be among the hardest hit in India as climate change accelerates. It is so unfair; these tribal people are being assaulted from all sides.

In two days we head to West Bengal. Today in the news they are reporting yet another police attack on a crowd of protesters who refuse to move to make way for the so-called “special economic zones” where all labor and environmental laws are suspended in order to attract corporations. Land is taken away with little or no compensation, and nowhere for these people to go. When they refuse to move and blockade the roads, the police shoot to kill.

Fourteen people were shot and killed yesterday in West Bengal. Twelve were shot in a similar incident in Kalinga Nagar, Orissa, in 1996 when Tata Steel tried to create a special economic zone. The people there remain agitated, and we are told it is unsafe to travel there.

Today we head to Ib Valley, the site of at least 6 coal-fired power plants, many of them constructed with World Bank and American development dollars. We will try to arrive before the heat of the day.

Our driver has arrived.

We are off …

Best to all,

Daphne