In September, I spent two weeks in India pursuing stories that informed this week’s field guide on the future of coal. The project took me and my colleague Kuwar Singh on quite an adventure, from interviewing experts in the cafes of five-star Delhi hotels to being chased by goons in a tribal village next to a coal mine.
A conversation on the last day of the trip captured a perfect example of why I became a journalist. We were talking to an environmental activist in Raipur, capital of the state of Chhattisgarh, which has the country’s third-largest coal reserves. We had just come back from the state’s coal-producing regions, where we saw two mines—one operated by a state-run behemoth and another by a private company.
The difference between the mines was striking. In operation since 1981, Gevra is one of the world’s largest open-pit mines. In 2018, it produced 41 million metric tons of coal—about 7% of the country’s total production. Run by a subsidiary of Coal India Limited, the world’s largest coal-mining company, the enforcement of environmental regulations in the region appeared lax.
We reached the edge of the open-pit Gevra mine after a short walk from a nearby village. About 100 meters away from us inside the mine, we watched as workers used explosives to loosen the rocks. Technically, mine operators are supposed to give loud warnings before an explosion. None came before the ground below our feet shook. A loud bang cracked through the air a few milliseconds later. I captured the moments on camera because an eager miner told me when to hit record.
The story of the new mine, called PEKB—opened 30 years after Gevra and run by Adani Mining—was different. In the intervening years, the government passed laws that recognized the value forests provided to the villagers around them. So any loss of forest in pursuit of mining would require the miner to compensate villagers fairly. The upshot: While few villagers displaced in the process of creating the Gevra mine received compensation, those affected by the PEKB mine were much better off.
Technology had also enabled new forms of environmental enforcement. Each day, someone from a village near the PEKB mine walks to the river and takes a photo using their smartphone. If the water does not look as it should, they know that the Adani-operated mine is dumping effluents from processing the mined coal. The image is sent via WhatsApp to a government officer in Raipur, who talks to the mine operator.
For the hour that we spent in the Raipur activist’s office, we spoke about this progress for less than 10 minutes. Her job is to work on the many problems that still remain: Villagers are still not fairly compensated, local leaders are easily bribed, government officials don’t always respond to complaints, and the Hasdeo forest (where the PEKB mine is) could fall prey to yet another coal mine. When I asked her about the progress, she reluctantly admitted that she’s quite happy to see it but she’d never want to admit it publicly.
Among the may jobs of a journalist—from holding power to account and shining a light on society’s failures—it’s a joy telling the stories of progress. Coal mines tend not to be the place for those happy stories. And, yet, behind the soot-laden environmental nightmare, I found one.
When I left India exactly 11 years ago, I hadn’t planned on becoming a journalist. When I returned for my first big reporting trip in my home country, it proved that giving up the lab coat was the right decision.
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