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Burning issue of India's coal rush set to be key concern at Paris climate summit

As the Paris climate summit fast approaches, ITV Science Correspondent Alok Jha travelled to India to see first hand why the country's rapid coal rush will be a key concern during climate talks.

In his latest report he visits a mining town in eastern India.

The landscape around the mining town of Jharia in eastern India, is as closer to the vision of hell than anywhere else I’ve been on Earth.

Flames leap out of cracks in the earth, the air shimmers from the heat and thick, sulphurous smoke fills the air. At dusk, orange glows come from the hollows dotted around the ground.

These fires, which start spontaneously in disused coal mines, have been burning around Jharia for almost a hundred years.

Near one of the biggest, most intense fires, I saw the remnants of a home that had been ripped apart as the ground underneath had burned away. One of its main walls still stood, for now, at a precarious angle in the burning ground, a ragged tombstone for what had been there before.

People still live around these fires. I saw homes less than 10 metres from the flames - entire families there breathing in the toxic fumes day in and day out. Less than two miles away, more bustling villages and towns sit within the pall of the acrid smoke.

Children living at the edge of the mine are covered in the soot that is heavy in the air Credit: ITV News

Coal is a big part of the future of energy in India and Jharia is at the heartland of the country’s mining effort. The country has vast reserves of this fossil fuel and the government intends to double extraction to around 1.5bn tonnes from its mines by 2020.

With hundreds of millions of people without electricity, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has ambitious plans to pull as many of his citizens as possible out of poverty and give them the basics the rest of us enjoy in the 21st century - power, clean water and food. The cheapest way to do it is to dig out and burn the country’s vast reserves of coal.

Under current government targets to grow the economy by 8% every year, India’s carbon dioxide emissions are on course to rise from 1.7bn tonnes in 2010 to at least 5.3bn tonnes by 2030. A lot of that growth will come from coal.

India is on course to become the biggest contributor to the rise in greenhouse gases in the next 15 years so its plans matter to the rest of the world’s efforts to curb emissions.

Around the open-cast coal mines in Jharia, local villagers scrape a living by scavenging coal - they burn some at home and sell the rest.

The hostile environment makes for unpleasant work and many of those I spoke to - some as young as 10 years old - complained of breathing difficulties and about the physical effort of heaving heavy bags of coal home across the village.

Ankith, 12, told ITV News what it was like in the mines Credit: ITV News
Hrithik carries coal. Credit: ITV News

Sunita Devi said there was little option for her family - the fumes, the effort was unpleasant but her family had to eat, she told me.

She lives a half-hour walk from one of the mines and shares a three-room house with seven members of her family. Her grandson, at 18 months, is the latest addition and she worries about his future.

That's because her village isn't a safe or healthy place to live. It sits on a seam of coal and the ground is warm as coal fires smoulder underneath.

The houses could subside any day as the earth underneath burns away. She and her fellow villagers are living on fire.

Sunita's precarious existence is also under threat from another source. She's one of more than 100,000 people that local landowners want re-locate so that they can dig up the coal underneath.

The villagers have been offered money and homes in a newly-built nearby town. But campaigners say the offer is a pittance.

Local campaigner Ashok Agarwal said: “We don’t want palatial housing , we don’t want massive buildings all these people want is a roof over their head, two square meals ,education for their children and medicine.

“That's all that they are asking. Cant the government provide this?"

The people in Jharia are the “real India” adds Agarwal.

“It is their money that is being disproportionately distributed, so you have towns like Delhi and Bombay but what are those people doing over there, the real work is being done here.”

Sunita won't move easily. She doesn't know how she and her family would survive in the new place offered to them - a purpose-built resettlement colony called Belgaria.

Scavenging and selling coal in Jharia might not be pleasant but she knows the work. She is sceptical that she and her family could make an income in any new colony.

Ironically, across the nation it is people like Sunita and her family who the Indian government says it wants to help by opening more mines and burning the country's coal.

In its pledge ahead of the Paris climate summit, India announced major ambitions to invest in clean technology - it wants 40% of its energy from green or low-carbon sources by 2030. But that still leaves a vast amount of coal and other, more polluting fuels in the mix

There will be cleaner coal-burning technologies in future and the economics of renewables might shift radically to make them even more viable, so the exact impacts of India’s plans will no doubt change over the coming decade. But, even so, India’s need to burn coal could devastate international targets to reduce carbon emissions.

1.5bn
tonnes of coal India wants to extract from its mines by 2020

Prakash Javadekar, India’s environment minister, says that India wants to be part of the solution for global efforts to solve climate change. But he also rightly points out that, historically, wealthy nations have burned coal for many decades to get to where they are. In that process, those richer nations - including the US and the UK - have emitted copious greenhouse gases that eventually led to climate change in the first place.

To prevent India burning its coal now, to bring its people out of poverty, would be hypocritical.

India’s coal will be a huge issue at the Paris climate summit in a few weeks’ time. Somehow, the rest of the world needs to incentivise this country to keep as much of its coal in the ground as possible.

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