With blue skies in Delhi and the Himalayas peeking out of Punjab’s smog, you’d be forgiven for thinking covid-19 has inadvertently cleaned up pollution-choked parts of India, the world’s third largest emitter and home to its most polluted cities. Instead, in the months leading up to India’s lockdown, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was busy opening up a fossil fuel expansion at home and abroad.
On January 26, four days before India reported its first coronavirus case, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was the guest of honor at India’s Republic Day parade. India currently imports most of its crude oil from the Middle East and is looking to diversify its imports.
“We have to treble our energy consumption to catch up with the world… I will hold your hand and see that you don’t face any difficulty,” R.K. Singh, India’s Power Minister, said to Bolsonaro and a gathering of Brazilian Investors.
A month later, Namaste Trump drew 100,000 people in Modi’s home state of Gujarat. And once again, fossil fuels were a big theme.
“Since I took office, our exports to India have nearly gone up by 60 percent and export of high quality American energy by–thank you very much—500 percent. That is great,” President Donald Trump said.
Among the agreements Modi and Trump shook on was Exxon’s deal with Indian Oil to set up pipelines to deliver more American fossil gas and crude oil by rail, road, and waterways to parts of India that are not connected by physical pipelines. Last February, Indian Oil sealed a long-term contract to buy more American crude. India is already the fifth top importer of U.S. fossil gas and fourth top importer of crude oil.
Numerous global energy projects that counted on India’s growth story hang in the balance: Rosneft’s takeover of Essar Energy, Total’s joint ventures with Adani’s gas and solar businesses, BP and Reliance’s retail and aviation fuels joint venture, and Saudi Aramco and ADNOC’s investment in the world’s largest oil refinery are among the handful of projects proposed or started in recent years. Now, all may be in jeopardy in one way or another. Standard & Poor projects that India and Indonesia will grow at 1.8 percent, “previously unthinkable numbers for two high-speed economies.”
Because it feeds nearly two-thirds of India’s power needs, coal on the domestic front is still kosher. About 70 percent of India’s coal is located in states where historically marginalized indigenous communities live, communities that are rarely informed or consulted when their lands and forests decimated for open-pit mines that require huge amounts of land and generate massive amounts of pollution. Coal mining, freight, ports, and power generation are among the industries that are exempt from India’s lockdown restrictions. Coal India, the world’s largest coal producer, might wear a mask on its Twitter logo. But it reported record production in the last three months and continues to race towards digging up 710 million tonnes of coal this year, a target set by the Modi government.
“They’re probably able to mine faster than ever before, with none of us able to stop them,” Manjeet Yadav, a resident of the coal mining town of Korba told Earther.
On March 5, Yadav was involved in a protest to stall the dispatch of coal from Gevra, one of Asia’s biggest mines, along with thousands of locals like him who’ve lost their land to the void without getting the jobs and compensation they are due. Since 2014, the Modi government has weakened laws so people like Manjeet living near expanding coal mines wouldn’t need to be consulted. Yet India’s Environment Ministry is still virtually going to work to grant coal mines 30-year leases based on a Powerpoint presentation and a single Google Earth map file.
On April 30, two new mines operated by mining mogul Adani got off the ground. The mines, allocated to a state-owned company and contracted to Adani to run, had previously faced a groundswell of protests from indigenous communities who’ve conserved the dense forests where the mines are slighted to be dug up for generations. More than 100,000 trees are being axed for the mines, to the detriment of Munda and Gond Adivasis who rely on these forests for food, fuel and their livelihoods. Another coal mine proposal on the docket would go through the heart of an elephant preserve.
Companies like Coal India say that social distancing is being maintained in their offices and that they distributed 330,000 masks. But locals told Earther masks are only being distributed to the company’s office workers in leafy colonies, not workers on the frontlines or the communities who live next to mines who live with pollution every day.
“How do you socially distance in an underground mine?” one worker told Earther who has received no protective equipment.
All this is happening even as India’s need for coal has dropped precipitously. Actual power demand in India has fallen by a whopping 30 percent, and electricity consumption dropped to levels last seen five years ago, as industries that were still running faced transport hurdles during India’s lockdown and workers who’d migrated from the hinterland struggled to make their way back home. Power plants have more than enough coal on their hands and nowhere else to store it. Some coal ports are also filled to the brim. At the start of this month, roughly 800,000 tonnes of South African coal lie at India’s key eastern port of Krishnapatnam. Where excess coal stock will be stored is anybody’s guess. Employees warn that there’s an actual danger of coal stocks catching fire, causing even more pollution in a respiratory pandemic.
India’s ash dams are running out of space to store coal waste. Six bodies were pulled out of coal ash where Reliance’s Ultra Mega Power Project’s ash dam breached. Toxic ash slurry flooded fields up to nine kilometers downstream. This is the third ash breach in a year that coal town Singrauli has seen. No company officials have faced arrest to date.
“Who do you reach out to in times of accidents under lockdown? If goods have to be transported, then how many times a day? Health and safety, everything that is linked is shut,” Kanchi Kohli, an environmentalist and researcher, told Earther. She said there’s no clarity about how India’s pollution control boards are enforcing industry’s compliance to India’s environmental laws or how they’re monitoring emissions and safety.
Boards are often thinly staffed, checks are minimal and industry often operates without permits or scrutiny, while authorities look the other way. Earlier in May, a gas leak from a South-Korean petrochemical plant killed 12 people in the Eastern port city of Visakhapatnam: the plant was found to be operating without environmental clearances for nearly two decades.
Sectors like thermal power that are already in debt may take years to recover citing losses, as power demand drops. India’s banks battling bad loans from the coal sector for years are now faced with the prospect of even more stressed assets. Renewables—the smallest portion of India’s energy mix—are unlikely to have the liquidity to weather cancelled power purchase agreements. The Modi government may have loosened the leash for new renewable energy plants to commence operations and asked that states honor their deals. But experts estimate 3 gigawatts of solar and wind projects could be held up because of the covid-19 lockdown.
Meanwhile, large hydropower projects that will count towards India’s non-fossil fuel capacity are slated to be greenlit. The dams are planned on a tributary of the Brahmaputra, a transboundary river that Bangladesh, Bhutan, and China depend on. The area is also a biodiversity hotspot on the Indo-China border that’s home to the Idu Mishmi tribe and 75 globally threatened species, including endangered tigers. The Idu Mishmi consider the 52 tigers of the Dibang Valley their blood brothers, and their story is one of community conservation. The government’s moves to expand hydro in the sensitive Himalayan region are being met with widespread opposition—albeit online—from the tribe who will be displaced en masse as well as conservation scientists who worry about biodiversity loss, earthquakes, and glacial lakes bursting.
India’s carbon emissions might have fallen for the first time in four decades, according to expert analysis over at Carbon Brief. But their scenarios for what happens after the lockdown seem extremely optimistic, given the Indian government’s policy response since.
Where will all this energy go?
Last September, India’s Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman took some heat for blaming Uber-hailing millennials for falling automotive sales. But GDP numbers had already been falling since 2017: India’s economic and energy demand slowdown was already well under way before the virus got here.
“Lackluster power demand might not last forever,” energy reporter Shreya Jai told Earther.
The impacts could be comparable to the time Modi junked India’s currency overnight. Covid-19 could slow this growth story down further, but it could also be an opportunity for the country to examine its energy choices, fix its air pollution crisis, and resolve environmental conflicts, given that the region is amongst the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. It will also test the country’s political relationships with the rest of the world.
What energy trajectory will India choose, now that it can see through the haze?
Updated, 5/29/20, 1:45 p.m.: This post has been updated to remove a reference to Mukesh Ambani owning Reliance Power. His brother Anil does.
Update, 5/29/2020, 3:46 p.m.: This post has been updated with clarifying language about what the longevity of the economic impacts.
Aruna Chandrasekhar is an independent journalist from India, currently at Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute. She writes and thinks a lot about land, energy, commons and environmental justice for communities at risk in our fast-warming world.