Whilst Abbott, Hunt, Palmer and Newman regale us with their
humanitarian effort to lift India out of poverty by selling them coal,
the Indians recognise ill-informed self-serving greed when they see it.
Far from embracing our colonial noblesse oblige, they view us as
ignorant corporate lapdogs, and can you blame them.
The following is a letter from Shankar Sharma, an Indian Power Policy Analyst, to Campbell Newman.
Dear Mr. Newman,
Greetings from Mysore, India.
May I draw your team’s attention to a recent news item in “au.finance.yahoo.com” under the heading “Poor Indians need our coal: Qld premier”. ?
The statement attributed to you that “Those who say we can
immediately change, I’m afraid, are condemning people in China, but
particularly in India, who live in poverty, condemning them to that
poverty,” has surprised many people here in India. This statement, if
reported correctly, indicates to me that you did not have the benefit of effective briefing by your officers.
The following facts should assist your officers to provide correct briefing on all the related issues.
- “To take 1.3 billion people in India out of poverty is going to
require significant energy, and coal particularly is what they’re
About 30% of the population is reported to be poor and also without access to electricity. It
is also equally irrational to assume that coal power is the only way of
providing electricity to those who have no access to electricity, and
to assume that it is the only way of lifting the poor from the clutches
It should be noted that between 1990 & 2013 (as per Central
Electricity Authority publication “Growth of Electricity in India” ) the
installed electricity generating capacity in India increased from about
64,000 MW to 223,000 MW, and during the same period the national per
capita electricity production increased from about 330 kWH to about 917
kWH. During this period Coal power capacity increased from about 41,000
MW to about 131,000 MW, and is at present 60% of the total power
capacity in the country. But the number of people outside the purview of
electricity network did not change considerably during this period. It
should become amply clear that if much of the additional electricity
produced in this period was used to provide electricity to
un-electrified houses, there should have been no households
un-electrified today. But the very characteristics of a grid
based electricity infrastructure, wherein the coal power has been the
king, cannot ensure equitable access to electricity for all, especially
in a diverse country like India. Most of such additional power
generation has gone to meet the escalating demand of people in urban
areas and of the industries and commerce at the cost of rural poor.
In this context it should also be noted that the lack of access to
electricity for the 30% population in India is basically because of the
difficulties associated with integrated grid power. The issues of low
density of loads in rural areas, the high cost of extension of grid
supply to remote villages, inability of the villagers to pay for such
grid power, poor economy of the coal power plants in small sizes etc.
are all behind 30% of India’s population being denied electricity even
after 6 decades of independence.
In view of the fact that the power sector in India is beset with huge
inefficiencies (the sector is often termed as a leaking bucket, with
the potential to save as much as 30 -40% of the demand on the integrated
grid) the addition of new power production capacity, such as
coal power plants, cannot be termed as rational investment from the
perspective of the common man.
The development economists will even find it hilarious that
about 400 Million poor in India should depend on imported coal from
distant Australia to come out of poverty on a sustainable basis.
The experience of two Ultra Mega Coal Power Plants on the West Coast of
India, which were designed to depend entirely on imported coal, should
be a lesson that the uncertainties associated with the supply and price
of imported coal should not be associated with rational economic
A holistic view of the issues surrounding the coal
power in a densely populated country like India clearly establishes the
hollow claim of coal power lobbies. It is not surprising that coal
advocacy groups are silent on the health and pollution issues associated
with coal mining, coal burning and ash disposal activities.
Whereas your statement refers to lifting 1.3 Billion Indian from poverty, it
is surprising that it seems that you have not been briefed on the
social and environmental aspects of burning large quantities of coal in a
densely populated and resource constrained country like India.
A study report “COAL KILLS” by three NGOs on the pollution impacts of coal in India has estimated that in 2011-2012, emissions
from Indian coal plants resulted in 80,000 to 115,000 premature deaths
and more than 20 million asthma cases from exposure to total PM10
As per another report by Chinese Centre for Disease Control and
Prevention “The True Cost of Coal – Air Pollution and Public Health’, coal
combustion in China is the source of 70% of the country’s soot
emissions; 85% of its sulfur dioxide emissions; 67% of its nitrogen
oxide emissions; and 80% of its carbon dioxide emissions. One has to
question as to how such pollution statistics can be construed as
contributing to the welfare of children, women, old aged, sick people
amongst the vulnerable sections of our societies.
According to a report of January 2011 by Synapse Energy Economics, Inc., USA “Benefits of Beyond BAU” the
death toll in a wealthy country such as USA was estimated to be between
8,000 and 34,000 premature deaths every year from inhaling fine
particulate matter from coal combustion.
An authentic report on the major health effects of massive coal
burning is a report of 2009 by the title “Coal’s Assault on Human
Health” by Physicians for Social Responsibility. This report refers to
coal combustion emissions such as sulfur dioxide, particulate matter
(PM), nitric oxides, mercury, and a number of other hazardous
substances, which damage the respiratory, cardiovascular and nervous
systems of the human body. In particular, these emissions
contribute to some of the most widespread diseases, including asthma,
heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer, which can devastate the life of
poor people who generally have to do even without basic healthcare
A media release on 13 February 2013, from a new collaborative network of health organizations in Australia has said: “The
local and global effect of fossil fuel use on health and wellbeing is
an immediate problem as well as an issue of intergenerational equity,
with the exploitation of these resources causing irreversible harm to
Earth’s systems, compromising the health and security of future
An article “The mining and burning of coal: effects on health and the
environment” in Sept. 2011 issue of Medical Journal Australia has
(i) “Communities in which coal mining or burning occurs have been shown to suffer significant health impacts;
(ii) The health and climate costs of coal are unseen, and when costs to health systems are included, coal is an expensive fuel.”
In view of all these health impacts it is sad that the coal
power advocates continue to claim that the coal power will lead to real
economic development and sustainable development; because in all such
cases the people who are impacted most are the poor people.
While the health and the associated social issues of coal power
should become crystal clear from a plethora of credible reports from
around the world, the recent decision of the international
financial institutions and many national governments from around the
world on coal financing should demonstrate how the relevance of coal
power in eradicating the poverty is being viewed at global level.
Earlier this year, two of the world’s largest IFIs, the World Bank
and the European Investment Bank (EIB), announced their historic
restrictions on coal financing. Since then governments from around the
world — from the U.S. to Norway — have followed suit. There also was the
U.K. government’s announcement that it too will end support for
overseas coal plant construction. Recently the European Bank for
Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) also announced its decision to
move beyond coal.
While the coal power in a densely populate country like India
has huge health costs, the increasing number of coal power plants are
also putting unsustainable pressure on natural resources like land and
Whereas India has been facing huge problems in these two resources for decades, the
vast number of additional coal power plants will exacerbate the
problems to the detriment of the poor and the vulnerable sections of the
society, who are the worst affected sections by forced displacement and
by the denial of access to adequate quantities of fresh water.
All these issues should establish that in a densely populated
and resources constrained country like India, coal power should not be
viewed as a savior for the poor, but as a perpetrator of injustice of
all kinds for such vulnerable sections of our society, not only in India
and China but all over the world.
Whereas the present Australian government has chosen not to
acknowledge the urgent need to reduce the total GHG emissions at the
global level, the majority of scientific communities, international
institutions and governments around the world have no doubt about such a
need. The recommendations from the latest Synthesis Report, AR5, from
IPCC to minimise GHG emissions from the burning of coal cannot be
ignored for the sake of very survival of human kind.
In summary, the Coal, which is a major source of GHG emissions and
other pollutants, cannot be seen as necessary to address the twin issue
of providing electricity to all and to pull the vast number of people
from the clutches of poverty.
While the argument that poor Indians need Australian coal can
be at best described as an effort to hide commercial interest behind
the so called concern for the poor, Australia’s coal export is not only
doing great damage to the legitimate interests of the poor in India, but
also compromising the true interest of its own people by destroying its
It is worthy of notice what has been reported in The Australian on 4 Nov. 2014.
“TONY Abbott’s declaration that coal is good for humanity has been
attacked by Australian National University academic Elizabeth Hanna, who
warns thousands of people will be sentenced to death if Australia keeps
Dr Hanna, whose research was included in the latest Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change report, predicted Australia faced days hotter
than 50C within 10 or 15 years under continuing global warming and this
would dramatically increase the number of heat-related deaths.
If that happens, “we are at risk of mass-death events in Australia,
similar to the death tolls due to extreme heat overseas’’, she said.
“In 2003, 70,000 people died in Europe and 55,000 died in Russia in 2010 due to extreme heat.” ”
A rational analysis of all the related issues will reveal
that Australia can contribute to the true interests of the poor in India
by investing in and persuading the Indian authorities to undertake
urgent improvement measures in the existing power infrastructure such as
highest possible efficiencies and optimal levels of conservation in
electricity sector, and in widespread usage of distributed type of
renewable energy sources such as roof top SPV systems and community
based bio-energy systems.
Power Policy Analyst
# 1026, 5th Main Road, E&F Block, Ramakrishna Nagara Mysore, Karnataka, India – 570022