At the Front Lines of the Global Transition

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Meghalaya’s Coal Shutdown Is Leaky, Testing Authority of Law and Court

In plain view of the police and security forces, and in open defiance of a court order in April that shut down Meghalaya's dangerous and polluting coal mines, newly mined coal is unloaded along the national highway that serves as a coal transport staging area. Photo/Keith Schneider

In plain view of the police and security forces, and in open defiance of a court order in April that shut down Meghalaya’s dangerous and polluting coal mines, newly mined coal is unloaded along the national highway that serves as a coal transport staging area. Photo/Keith Schneider

JOWAI, India — On April 17, in a ruling that stunned miners, truckers, and owners in this region of black dust and rivers that run the colors of the rainbow, India’s National Green Tribunal ordered Meghalaya’s $US 650 million coal mining industry to shut down.

Nothing like it had ever happened to the coal industry in India or anywhere else. Ruling that Meghalaya’s globally unique ‘rathole’ box mines were too dangerous and too dirty to continue operating, the four-year-old court issued the first state-level closure of a fossil fuel industry in history.

Some 30,000 mine owners, 70,000 immigrant miners, and 6,000 coal truckers were forced to stop working in this heavily forested state in Northeast India. Virtually every business was affected in the state’s two big coalfields — here in the Jaintia Hills, and in the Garo Hills in the state’s southwestern region. Merchants complain of slower sales.

The shutdown generated protests and a huge march in May. The unrest grew so fierce that security forces fired into a crowd of demonstrating owners, miners, and truckers at one protest that killed two men.

Six months later, Meghalaya’s coal fields are like a dormant breathing beast — quiet for the time being, but also restive. Hundreds of empty six-wheel coal transport trucks are idle in fields, and parked behind truck repair shops. The makeshift miners’ camps that lay beside the national highway, built of scrap wood, tin, and blue plastic, are either gone or empty.

Meghalaya’s coal fields, though, also are astir with resentment and smoldering readiness to defy the court’s order. Regional government officials purse their lips and snarl about the Green Tribunal and its surprising power. The roadside coal loading transfer areas, like great parade grounds of packed dirt, are not nearly as busy as they were before the court order. Yet here and there, in plain view of the police and security forces, mined coal is unloaded into big black piles. At night, authorities told me, coal is loaded by hand into six-wheel trucks and transported to steel and paper factories in neighboring Assam or taken down the road to Meghalaya’s seven cement factories.

Defiance and independence from authority is a cultural virtue in Northeast India, a seven state region of indigenous tribes granted special autonomous authority by India’s constitution. Insurgent groups are active and well armed. They regularly confront the police and Indian military, and shake down business owners and truck drivers for bribes.

Meghalaya’s rathole box mines are a manifestation of the tradition of lawlessness. Cut from rock in neat squares measuring roughly 30 meters by 30 meters, the mines are typically 40 meters to 70 meters deep. At the bottom miners work on their knees in tunnels about one meter tall. Sweating in the focused light of small flashlights taped to their heads, they scratch at the coal face with picks and steel bars.

Deaths and injuries are common, and occur without penalty to mine owners. Pollution from acid mine drainage has ruined the state’s fisheries, and turns Meghalaya’s rivers red, blue, green, and orange.

Enforcement of the NGT’S shutdown order is largely the responsibility of district police. Mining and transporting coal is illegal under the court order and punishable as a felony with potentially long sentences and hefty fines.

Police resolve, though, to halt outlaw mining and trucking is episodic. Meghalaya, after all, is a region where mine owners and government authorities are close friends, and so many residents are dependent on coal sales for their living.

The April shutdown order affected virtually every business in Meghalaya's two big coalfields -- the  Jaintia Hills to the east, and the Garo Hills in the state's southwestern region. In Jowai's crowded market, merchants complained of slower sales. Photo/Keith Schneider

The April shutdown order affected virtually every business in Meghalaya’s two big coalfields — the Jaintia Hills to the east, and the Garo Hills in the state’s southwestern region. In Jowai’s crowded market, merchants complained of slower sales. Photo/Keith Schneider

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India’s National Green Tribunal Challenges Government and Industry To Follow The Law

The Hon. Swatanter Kumar, chairman of the National Green Tribunal. Under his watch the four-year-old court has emerged as one of the world's important centers for the idea that enforcing the law to secure clean air and water and to protect resources is the soundest path to India's economic development. Photo/Keith Schneider

The Hon. Swatanter Kumar, chairman of the National Green Tribunal. Under his watch the four-year-old court has emerged as one of the world’s important centers for the idea that enforcing the law to secure clean air and water and to protect resources is the soundest path to India’s economic development. Photo/Keith Schneider

SHILLONG, India — India’s National Green Tribunal, a judicial body with legal authority that ranks just below India’s Supreme Court, is quickly emerging as one of the world’s most important forums for the idea that economic advancement is tightly wired to public safety, and the security of water, air, and land.

Established by India’s Supreme Court and legislated into existence and a source of funding by Parliament in 2010, the new court gained a formidable home office eleven months ago. The NGT’s building, constructed over a century ago as the residence of a regional prince, and formerly the national office of India’s Human Rights Commission, sits prominently near the center of the capital district that also houses the President’s Estate and the Supreme Court.

Prior to the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May, India’s leadership took pains to recruit great jurists and technical specialists to serve on the bench. The government invested in decorating the Tribunal’s main Courtroom Number 1 with green carpet, green curtains, green upholstered chairs, gold filagree on decorative cornices, and a gold seal above the judicial bench. The ornamentation, poorly lit in an Indian government sort of way, is authentically earnest and more than enough to convey institutional significance, and sound and independent legal judgment.

Yet even with all the green and gold serving as glitter on the symbolic robe of impartial justice, the colors aren’t sufficient to hide the doggedness that really drives the spirit of India’s newest court. Just a few days of attending NGT hearings this month reveals a 17-member bench, comprised of seven judges and ten of India’s top science, engineering, and technical experts, driven by righteous zeal.

There is, in fact, an undercurrent of spiritual fervor in the poorly ventilated courtroom, illumiinated by harsh fluorescence, and jammed with lawyers in spotless white shirts and pitch black suits. They huddle like penguins, straining to hear the unamplified back and forth between the grey-bearded judges and the much younger lawyers. The scene feels a lot like the heated, crowded, airless, determined Rosh Hashanah stir of a Brooklyn synagogue. Read More

Water Supply And Reason Are Priorities in New U.S. – China Climate Agreement

One goal of the agreement is to make Chinese cities much cleaner and greener, like Chicago. Photo/Keith Schneider

One goal of the agreement is to make Chinese cities much cleaner and greener, like Chicago. Photo/Keith Schneider

NEW DELHI, India — There are nearly 1.3 billion people in this swarming democracy, where over 66 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the general election last May. A few of them took me aside this week to express surprise at the puzzle that is the American electorate and its national leadership.

It’s easy to see why.

On November 4, despite the most money ever spent in a national election ($US 3.7 billion), just over a third of eligible American voters — the lowest percentage since 1942 — felt it necessary to cast a ballot to influence the country’s management.

But just eight days later, on November 12, the president of the United States reached a momentous accord with the president of China to cap greenhouse gas emissions and do a whole lot more for Mother Earth and its human inhabitants.

THE PACT
Though viewed here in India, and by most observers globally as a an environmental accord, the pact’s six major provisions boil down to a very new international economic development strategy. The agreement sets out two politically arduous but technically achievable goals:

1. Turn major industries, particularly the institutions that supply electricity, into technologically advanced, water-conserving, low-carbon, pollution-avoiding guardians of environmental safety and human well-being.

2. Redesign cities to be much cleaner, much greener, much healthier, and much more efficient users of water, energy, land, and other natural resources.

In effect, the agreement sets out to either convert or overrun skeptics in the carbon-based industries, and their allies in government and finance. It does so by encouraging collaboration between the two largest economies, and the crowd of inventors and practitioners in both countries, to much more quickly put into place new tools, new practices, and especially new markets to contend with radically different ecological and economic conditions.

Temporarily putting aside political realities in both nations, and the skepticism fostered by decades of reporting in the U.S., and more recently in China, the two nations appear to be trying to do something truly significant.

President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping, and their aides, very clearly recognize the new malevolence displayed by Planet Earth in the 21st century. They seem to be looking at the searing storm of environmental and economic transition square in the eye, and presenting a concerted response that comes straight from the shoulder. The two leaders, in sum, seem resolute about aggregating achievable steps in technology and policy like a wall against danger. The changes the agreement calls for in water conservation, efficiency, clean energy, green equipment and the like, are the bricks. In short, the two leaders are trying to build a new foundation for industries and cities and people to survive and thrive in a perilous ecological age.
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Surrounded By Water, Ohio River Valley Experiences Economic Resurgence

One of the centerpieces of Owensboro, Kentucky's Ohio River development is the exquisite fountain in the city's new shoreline park. Photo/Keith Schneider

One of the centerpieces of Owensboro, Kentucky’s Ohio River development is the exquisite fountain in the city’s new shoreline park. Photo/Keith Schneider

OWENSBORO, KY. — Randy Simes, an urban planner in Cincinnati with a keen sense of observation, founded UrbanCincy.com in 2007 to report on the transitional neighborhoods, evolving culture, and reviving post-industrial economy of his native Queen City of nearly 300,000 residents.

But it wasn’t until he posted before-and-after-pictures from Google Street View last May, comparing changes in well-known Cincinnati street corners from 2007 to 2013, that Simes’ neighbors and colleagues embraced his boosterish view that the third largest city on the Ohio River really was on an economic roll.

The comparative photographs illustrated how diminished, deteriorated, troubled, and low-functioning sections of the city had, over six years, sprouted new offices, new housing, new parks, and fresh opportunity.

“It’s the most popular page on the site by far,” Simes said in an interview. “In some places the difference was really jaw-dropping. These kind of changes have been going on here for awhile now. It’s really interesting because a lot of locals didn’t realize it was happening.”

By no means is Cincinnati’s slow awakening to economic promise and cultural transition unusual in the recovering cities in the six-state Ohio River Valley. It’s a story residents see unfold daily and ought to know.  But to really accept its authenticity will take somebody else to tell them.

And for good reason. For 40 years the narrative in the cities and shoreline counties served by the river was such a terrible tale of job losses, urban decay, and population decline that almost all of the 981-mile river corridor served essentially as a national economic sacrifice zone. Real work, the day-to-day toil and time that people invested in making things, and that defined for decades how communities viewed their relevance, disappeared seemingly overnight in the 1980s.

A region that in the middle years of the 20th century set world-class standards of income growth, manufacturing technology, working conditions, and middle class prosperity had by the end of century been driven by globalization, obsolescence, deindustrialization, and wage decline to the bottom of the national heap. In the 1990s just about the only new industrial installation constructed on the Ohio River was a hazardous waste incinerator built next door to an elementary school in East Liverpool, Ohio.

With the free fall in the Ohio River Valley states came a general weakness in America’s overall economy and disillusion in the national spirit.

A new century, and a lot of courageous collaborations by municipal leaders, business executives, and university administrators, has turned the page on the region’s prospects.

 Twenty big locks and dams, including this one near Evansville, Indiana, keep barge traffic moving that carries 225 million tons of cargo annually on the Ohio River, the busiet inland waterway in the United States. Photo/Keith Schneider


Twenty big locks and dams, including this one near Evansville, Indiana, keep barge traffic moving that carries 225 million tons of cargo annually on the Ohio River, the busiet inland waterway in the United States. Photo/Keith Schneider

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Earth Pushes Back – Hard

China's coal consumption, from mines like this in Inner Mongolia, is closing in on 4 billion metric tons annually, influencing dangerous new weather patterns in Asia and globally. Photo/Toby Smith

China’s coal consumption, from mines like this in Inner Mongolia, is nearing 4 billion metric tons annually, influencing dangerous new weather patterns in Asia and globally. Photo/Toby Smith

There’s nothing demur about Mother Earth these days. She’s fuming and pushing back hard. Very hard.

The Ebola emergency that began in West Africa and has since spread to two more continents has produced 5,000 deaths and is accelerating. Deep droughts engulf Brazil’s largest city and America’s largest state. Hurricanes drowned two major American cities since 2005. The 2013 Philippines typhoon killed 6,250 people. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed 228,000 people. A tsunami in the Pacific Ocean in 2011 killed 16,000 people and shut down Japan’s seawater-cooled nuclear sector.

All of these events illustrate Earth’s new temper tantrum and reflect two reasons common to its cause. The first is the massive population growth that is pushing mankind deeper into dangerous places to secure increasingly scarce supplies of water, food, and energy. In West Africa more people ventured into equatorial forests for land to grow crops and wood to heat fires. They unleashed a plague.

The second is how transportation, energy, food, water supply, and other public systems have been so weakened by disinvestment, mismanagement, and corruption that nations are not capable of summoning an adequate response.

In the case of the Ebola outbreak what was missing in West Africa was a competent health care system. The virus is loose now, spreading and dangerous.

The Earth doesn’t care. The Ebola outbreak is evidence of how nations are being pummeled by ecological emergencies that don’t seem natural — longer droughts, harsher floods, deadlier diseases, more severe insect infestations, earthquakes, tsunamis, and more powerful storms than ever before.

The tough droughts in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, and in California are visible chapters in this new narrative. Disruptions in hydrological cycles have resulted in drier conditions across much of the planet.  Sao Paulo, a city of nearly 12 million residents that is twice as big as it was in 1980, was slow to recognize the severity of the shortage of moisture and did next to nothing to encourage water conservation.

The Earth is adding 80 million new people a year; 25 million from India alone. Here, workers making their way to jobs in New Delhi, capital of a nation of nearly 1.3 billion people that is twice as big as it was in 1978. Photo/Keith Schneider

The Earth is adding 80 million new people a year; 25 million from India alone. Here, workers making their way to jobs in New Delhi, capital of a nation of nearly 1.3 billion people that is twice as big as it was in 1978. Photo/Keith Schneider


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