The complex story of India’s job-producing and environment-destroying coal mines

(Screenshot from: Broken Landscape: Confronting India’s Water-Energy Choke Point - Wilson Center/ECSP/Circle of Blue)

When Sean Peoples set out for India’s Meghalaya State last April, the plan was to tell the story of migrant and child labor in the region’s coal mines. The story quickly changed when India’s National Green Tribunal issued a shutdown order for the state’s coal mining industry. The resulting story, published recently as a short documentary, is one of overlapping problems faced as the result of the industry and the shutdown.

The 13-minute documentary, Broken Landscape: Confronting India’s Water-Energy Choke Point, tells the complicated story of mining in Meghalaya. The $675 million industry benefits the owners, but is also a major employer for the region. More than 100,000 people are estimated to be out of jobs after the shutdown – 70,000 of whom are migrant workers. While mine workers protested against the government’s decision, people living along the rivers polluted by the mines face a whole different problem.

“You take a ride around where coal mining is prolific and you see the water is orange,” said Peoples, a program associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and co-producer of the documentary, in an interview with Humanosphere. “When you ask people how they are affected by the coal mining, they point to the river that is no longer alive. Water is a character you cannot deny. It is not supposed to be a rusty-orange. It is just not.”

The river pollution and the coal mine shutdown are the result of the illegal practice of “rat-hole box” mining. The extremely dangerous method of coal mining requires workers to work through tunnels so small they must work on their knees. Coal is extracted bit-by-bit as the miners dig it out using picks and steel bars. Tunnels are prone to collapse and the practice pollutes near-by rivers.

The Wilson Center teamed up with water news site Circle of Blue to report on the nexus between water, energy and food in India. Correspondent Keith Schneider has led the reporting as a part of his “Global Choke Point” project. The documentary captures some of the challenges faced by a country that where population growth will soon see it as the home to more people than China. Getting enough food, water and energy to the 1.2 billion people in India right now is already difficult. Coal is one place where India is trying to address the problem, but there are costs.

“India pushes its coal mining sector – almost all of it state-owned – to produce as much as it can, leading to regular battles between citizens and utilities over water to cool power plants and rampant water pollution from mining,” explains Schneider in the Wilson Center’s New Security Beat blog. “[The current energy trends] confirm why energy production should be one of [president]Narendra Modi’s top priorities.”

The story of coal mining in Meghalaya has applications that go beyond India’s energy policy. Attendees of a screening of the documentary in Appalachia said that they too would like to see stories like this told about their home towns, said Peoples. The intersection between industry and the environment is one felt all over the world.

“We really believe it is not happening just in northeast India. This is a smaller story of a larger issue. Coal is not going away and demand for energy is not going away. But we are in danger that these water sources could go away,” said Peoples.

The Wilson Center, like other research institutions, focuses heavily on churning out well-researched reports and policy papers. Peoples sees storytelling, like what was done in the documentary, as a way for more people to understand some of the most complex problems facing the world.

“From my viewpoint, I want to provide more context so we can understand the people and places we will need to reckon with when these policies are put into place,” he said. “To unlock some of the complexity we need to see what a migrant worker goes through, or what a person downstream is grappling with, visually.”

The promotion for the documentary is only just beginning – there is an upcoming screening at Penn State University. The hope is that the reporting and research will support changes that can avert the problems experienced by the people living in Meghalaya today.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.