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Why Imperial Greed Has a Huge Role to Play in India's Electricity Blackout

Neoliberalism and international banking share the blame with technological shortcomings.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Daphne Wysham

 
 
 
 

 

This article was originally posted at FireDogLake.  View original here.

One-tenth of the planet’s people — one-half of India’s population — lost power completely this week, with a blackout covering most of north India’s highly populated states. What was the reason for the blackout?

While pundits and politicians postulate on the reasons for the power failure, one answer is clear: an ideology of neoliberalism foisted on India by the World Bank and IMF was partly to blame for the blackout.

It is not the only cause. Climate change has clearly played a role in India’s blackout: A delayed monsoon season meant lower water reservoirs and higher rates of  water siphoning  for agricultural purposes rather than power production. This could have been foreseen by the Bank back in the 1990s when climate change was clearly viewed as a problem to be dealt with. Nevertheless, the Bank pushed large hydropower projects in India, ramping up debt, while resettling millions from fertile land near riverbanks.

Meanwhile, India’s biggest and dirtiest source of power, coal, providing over 70% of the country’s power, is increasingly hard to come by. This, too, was something the Bank could have foreseen; yet instead it pushed coal power dependency aggressively in India. There is less and less land available for open-pit mining, deemed more “efficient” than underground mines by the World Bank. The reason for its “efficiency”? Underground miners were once one of India’s most powerful unionized labor forces. While their jobs were dangerous and dirty, they provided a decent living, and their underground mining prevented the widespread environmental and social destruction that open-pit mines ushered in. At World Bank’s behest, however, open-pit mines replaced thousands of underground mines, and miner’s unions were busted and replaced with a handful of workers driving large dump trucks. Efficiency gains may have been achieved, but at what cost?

Open-pit mines are literally hell-holes. They smolder in a constant state of combustion. They ravage the landscape, and cause acid drainage, which destroys the water supply, kills fish, and makes the water unsafe. As with large dams, thousands of India’s poorest tribal people have been uprooted to make way for open-pit mines and placed in resettlement camps where prostitution and alcoholism are endemic. The World Bank once claimed they would provide an acre of  land for every acre taken from the most marginalized tribal peoples to make way for mines and dams. But that promise was long ago watered down, then forgotten. Ironically, many of the tribals remain without power to this day. The poorest of the poor the Bank claims to serve got the shortest end of the stick.

Add to that the fact that India’s coal is heavy in ash content, and population pressures on available land  means ash disposal is also a problem. So, often, the polluting ash—with heavy metals and radioactive elements—is merely dumped in the already polluted rivers.

As India runs out of space for open-pit mines and ash disposal, it’s increasingly turning to coal from abroad—which comes at a higher price.  All of this could have been foreseen by the World Bank and IMF back in the mid-1990s. They were urged by NGOs such as ours to move toward solar, wind and other renewable energies in India — both in the interest of providing power to rural areas more cheaply and averting a climate disaster. And they were even urged by their own hand-picked “eminent person,” Emil Salim, a former board member of one of Indonesia’s largest coal companies, who headed up their three-year Extractive Industries Review, to get out of coal completely by 2008. The reason? The poor were “worse off,” not better off, Salim determined, as a result of the World Bank investments in coal. Nevertheless, the Bank continued to provide billions to one of the most polluting of fossil fuels, while ignoring its climate impact.

 
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