On 28 April, Leisang in Manipur became the final village in the country to be connected to the power grid, and the Indian government declared that it had achieved 100-percent electrification. However, government data indicates that nearly 25 million households continue to live in the dark. The next day, the union power minister announced a deadline of 31 December 2018 for uninterrupted power supply to every household in India.
These aggressive power-generation plans rely staggeringly on coal, which accounts for a majority share of India’s energy sources. Environmentalists and public-health advocates have been warning us about the dangers of this energy policy for years. However, in July, the Supreme Court pulled up the union government for extending its own deadline for thermal power plants to reduce their harmful emissions to below specified limits by five years, to 2022. Ninety-five percent of new plants reportedly do not have the requisite equipment to limit pollution. As a result, the extraction of coal and its extensive use in power generation continues to leave a path ridden with disease in its wake.
With 10 power plants and 16 coal mines, the Singrauli-Sonbhadra region in central India is called the country’s energy capital. It is also one of the most critically polluted areas of the country. Jagat Narayan Vishwakarma, who petitioned the National Green Tribunal in 2013 seeking justice for the local community, told us that an estimated 500 people die in the region every year due to medical complications arising from the contamination of the air they breathe and the water they drink. “The Coal Within” is a series of video testimonials of those having to bear the tremendous physical costs of our unsustainable energy policy.
In Gariya, some ten kilometres away from Anpara, the village panchayat’s records show as many as 33 coal-related deaths in 2016 alone. When an Ahmedabad-based laboratory tested the village’s water sources, not one was found to be uncontaminated. The government-recognised 15-kilometre safe radius, too, proved to be illusory—a lake at Pipragaon Nayi Basti, 20 kilometres away from the Obra Thermal Power Plant, was also found to be contaminated beyond permissible limits. Nevertheless, the government rarely attributes deaths to heavy-metal contamination. GD Agrawal, the first member-secretary of India’s central pollution control board, pointed out that the few laboratories equipped to carry out such tests either don’t actually possess the capability to do so, “or they’re being persuaded not to let the results come out.” Here, two villagers incapacitated by fluoride contamination share their stories.