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Commentary: Democracy in the power hub of India

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 6, 2012 - Mr. Tyagi had decided to go ahead with the public hearing in spite of several thousand angry villagers protesting behind the police barricades. As the government officer in charge of administering the public hearing, he quickly recorded the opinion of the 20 or so villagers who clearly favored the proposed Lanco Infratech Limited coal-fired power plant near the city of Korba, then declared “all the legal formalities of the public hearing complete,” according to local news media accounts.

Enraged protesters clambered over the barricades and threw stones; the police beat them back with batons and tear gas, as Mr. Tyagi made a hasty retreat to his vehicle. The public hearing ended with approximately 40 protesters arrested, several of whom were still in jail when I visited Korba a few weeks after the hearing.

India, the world’s largest democracy, faces some of its biggest challenges as it seeks to keep up its frenzied pace of economic growth. When Nancy Powell, the  U.S. ambassador to India, observed recently that India’s democracy “is a thriving one,” she spoke truthfully. But the breakneck speed of development projects in certain regions is pushing Indian democracy to the limit. On my recent trip to the state of Chhattisgarh – known as the "power hub" of India for its numerous power generation projects – I hoped to learn more about the state of Indian democracy in one of its fastest industrializing regions.

Chhattisgarh, nestled in the center of the country, has laid out an ambitious strategy to become India’s power hub for the foreseeable future by building scores of coal-fired plants. The power such plants will generate could bring electricity to thousands of villagers who have never had power, attract new industry and eliminate brownouts in larger cities.

While power cuts are a daily part of life for most Indians, the state’s chief minister promised last November that Chhattisgarh will never face another power cut for the next 20 years. But the plan is about more than meeting current and future needs of the state of Chhattisgarh. Chhattisgarh wants to generate far more than it needs and sell the surplus to other states, thus answering a critical need of the country and also earning revenue for itself.

Nearly all of the new power projects use coal to generate electricity, many of them drawing from Chhattisgarh’s extensive coalfields in the northern and central parts of the state. More than 30 power projects are planned for a single district within Chhattisgarh, enough to produce 34,000 megawatts – about 10 times what the entire state consumes. The neighboring district has nearly 50 more thermal power plants in the pipeline. The city of Korba already has so many coal power plants in operation and pumping particulate matter into the air that it has achieved the ignominious designation of fifth most polluted city in India.

But more and more communities are growing disaffected with the way companies and government officials have handled the public hearings required for big development projects. The contentious public hearing for the Lanco power plant near Korba drew several thousand protestors incensed by the land acquisition methods of the company, the failure to provide local employment opportunities and the government’s unwillingness to provide and widely disseminate key information about the plant ahead of time.

Lanco opened its power plant in Korba in 2009 and has acquired additional land to expand its power generation and triple its current capacity. The public hearing for the expansion to the Lanco plant and the ensuing public outcry earned reactions from various news outlets. Local activists have vowed to pursue their case in the National Green Tribunal (a special fast-track court for handling environmental cases), citing problems with Mr. Tyagi’s handling of the public hearing. One local activist, Laxmi Chouhan, accompanied me to Risdiapara, a village affected by the additional land acquisition and whose residents protested at the public hearing.

As we walked through the village, Chouhan ticked off the problems with the Lanco public hearing: Mr. Tyagi’s office never made the full report on the project’s environmental impact available to the public before the hearing. The company only provided a summary report on the environmental impacts. The summary report was in English, not Hindi, meaning none of the villagers could read it for themselves. Lanco did not send a representative to the hearing to answer any questions posed by residents, a requirement for public hearings.

Villagers also railed against the company for breaking its promises of local employment. A village council member from Risdiapara explained that he and the other villagers protested against further expansion by Lanco because “few of the people who initially had their land taken have gained employment, and even those who found jobs are earning next to nothing, maybe $50 or $60 a month.”

Another villager, Resham Lal Khunte, took me to his backyard so I could see how Lanco’s expansion plans had crept up on his land. The project originally displaced Khunte and his family several years back, and now a tall, long bank of sand loomed over his home. After scampering up the sandbank after him, I listened as Khunte pointed at the smokestacks and told me about the case he filed in the state courts against the power plant. The case has not been decided yet, but dump trucks and bulldozers crawled along their paths below us, oblivious to our presence or the pending decisions of distant judges.

Indian democracy may be thriving in some respects, but Chhattisgarh’s energy boom shows that democratic participation at the local levels still faces daunting challenges. Villagers see a process that appears rigged in favor of wealthy companies. And government officials, at least in Korba’s case, seem to only be paying lip service to the laws of public consultation. Khunte, Chouhan and the villagers present all agreed that the coal power company and the local government officials had made a mockery of the public hearing process.

“But you want to know the biggest problem?” Chouhan asked as villagers gazed at the Lanco plant behind Khunte’s house. “The biggest problem is that most of these villagers don’t know the right questions to ask. They aren’t trained lawyers or scientists. Tell me – how will they raise the proper objections in the public hearing anyhow?” Chouhan shrugged his shoulders and started back down the sandbank. The setting sun blazed a hot pink through the haze of pollution puffing out of Korba’s smokestacks.

Indeed, most of the villagers I spoke to seemed to have a hazy understanding of the public hearing process, their rights to participate in the decision-making process, and the facts about Lanco’s coal power plant. This is a problem that demands a closer look.

Next, I will look at some of the obstacles to keeping the Indian public informed and engaged.

Nick Wertsch is studying the role of public discourse in India under a Fulbright Fellowship.

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