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Interview: Sudha Bharadwaj on the Climate, Trade Unions and a Just Transition

Source: The Wire/YouTube

The climate crisis is intensifying worldwide, but especially so in India – which has a high population density, long shorelines, a high dependence on agriculture and is a beneficiary of the monsoons. Some issues here are becoming increasingly urgent, such as a fair transition away from coal and other fossil fuels, the climate crisis’s impact on vulnerable farmers, and what an equitable development trajectory for the country might be.

Against this backdrop, Nagraj Adve spoke with trade unionist and lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj for The Wire Science. Bharadwaj has been a trade unionist for over three decades, a lawyer and civil liberties activist based in Chhattisgarh. She has an extraordinary breadth of experiences with the ground realities in Chhattisgarh and beyond.

In Adve’s interview, presented in full below, Bharadwaj spoke about these issues, the various challenges we should expect to face in the course of a just transition, and other matters. The questions are in bold. Editor’s comments are in square brackets. Bigger paragraphs have been split up to ease reading on smaller screens.

While in Yerawada jail, you began to translate Naomi Klein’s book on global warming, This Changes Everything, into Hindi. What made you do it? And what were the challenges, in terms of doing it while in jail and in the translation?

I had always been concerned about ecological devastation in Chhattisgarh due to the limestone quarries and cement plants, vast coal mines, power plants and their ash dykes, sponge iron plants spewing black dust, and the rivers running red with iron ore – things that, as a trade unionist and later as a lawyer representing landowners fighting land acquisition, I had observed at close quarters. But I was always caught up with the battles of the present moment – the notices, the court cases, the jobs, the environmental hearings.

Sitting in my cell in Yerawada Jail’s Phansi yard, where we were locked in for 16 out of 24 hours in a day, there was time to read and think. A friend brought me Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything, and it did! I could barely put it down.

What struck me was not so much the scientific facts it presented or global political cover-ups and denials, or even the frightening power that the coal, oil and gas corporations wielded to kill this planet slowly. What I was really impressed with was Klein’s passionate and empathetic account of people’s movements against these corporations and governments, the new alliances they were forging, the alternatives they were building, everywhere, many of them quite invisibly.

People attend a Maha Panchayat as part of the farmers’ protest in Jind district, Haryana, February 3, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

I have always been a firm believer in the power of people’s movements, and the surge of happiness and excitement I felt reading This Changes Everything was matched only by accounts I read later in Byculla jail of the ongoing farmers’ movement.

I felt that the people I had been engaging with for the past decade and more – farmers and Adivasis in Korba, Surguja, Raipur, Rajnandgaon and Kanker, fighting their big and small battles under a loose anti-displacement umbrella front Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan – needed to make ‘friends’ with those I had made while reading Klein’s book – ‘friends’ from Greece, Canada, Ogoniland, Ecuador, China, Turkey, Texas. To learn from their tactics, their resilience, their alliances. And also because, despite all the differences, the common spirit and struggle of Indigenous people all over the world seemed so familiar and inspiring.

That’s how I started translating the book into Hindi. I wanted it to be for local activists and farmers who were literate but not necessarily highly educated. But I realised that there was a great deal of explaining to do. Places that people had never heard of and scientific processes they had never studied had to be introduced. It needed maps, photographs of specific struggles to convey their flavour, appendices explaining scientific and technical facts, and footnotes narrating political developments in particular countries.

I thought of splitting the book into three booklets. So it would be not just a translation but an adaptation. All of this made it necessary to first take the permission of the author and publisher. While I always knew that Naomi Klein would not refuse permission, her warm response was overwhelming, characteristic of a movement that has no time to bother with formalities any more.

But then I was shifted to Byculla jail, to its barracks. Being hemmed into coffin-sized spaces in the crowded barracks meant less space to have books. There also was a steady stream of prisoners requesting help with their legal matters. Once again, the present took over. My translation work stopped and it has yet to be resumed.

The trade union and peoples’ movements have a long history of combining ‘red and green’ perspectives, going back to the 1970s. What were its key elements? How did this approach influence thinking and practice among movements in Chhattisgarh?

Right from 1977, [the respected trade unionist] Comrade Shankar Guha Niyogi was very acutely aware of the ‘red and green’ perspective. For him, it variously meant ‘worker and peasant’, ‘sangharsh aur nirman’ (struggle and creation), ‘science and nature’.

Even as he worked with the miners of Dalli Rajhara in the captive iron ore mines of the Bhilai Steel Plant, engaged in the highly polluting activity of iron ore mining, the union he led – Chhattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh (CMSS) – participated wholeheartedly in the struggles of the surrounding communities of small farmers and forest dwellers as they engaged in everyday battles with the forest department.

They often blocked truckloads of timber being illegally smuggled out, even as they joined protests against the harassment of Adivasis for storing a little firewood. One of Niyogiji’s last writings in 1991 was a booklet, Hamara Paryavaran. In this, he speaks about how corrupt forest officials were clearing natural biodiverse forests only to replace them with the monoculture of eucalyptus that literally kills all other life around it.

He makes an unusual suggestion – that all trees felled in the forest should be transported only by bullock carts! This would ensure that rampant deforestation by commercial interests would be literally slowed down, and it would give employment to traditional bullock cart drivers.

The CMSS also campaigned for a ‘semi-mechanisation’ of the Dalli Rajhara mines, as an alternative to the full mechanisation being pushed by the Bhilai Steel Plant management. This plan combined manual labour with a partial mechanisation of the more hazardous jobs or of those requiring a higher level of precision. The union’s proposal for semi-mechanisation was not only meant to save jobs, it was also more cost-efficient and environment-friendly.

The management of the Bhilai Steel Plant was forced to postpone its plans for mechanisation because of the settlement it entered into with the union to not retrench existing workers. It was forced to concede to these demands because of the powerful movement the contract miners led to save the Dalli Rajhara township, in which they gathered around themselves the town’s shopkeepers and truck owners, whose very existence depended on the presence of workers in the town.

Traditionally, the interests of workers in an industry and of farmers in surrounding areas are considered to be antagonistic. But the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha [an umbrella organisation of workers and peasants] experimented with solidarities instead. In Baloda Bazaar, the Pragatisheel Cement Shramik Sangh supported the villagers surrounding the Ultratech Cement Plant (now owned by Adani) in protesting falling groundwater levels, the devastation of crops by effluents and illegal encroachments on the village commons.

Iron-ore mining in Goa. Credit: PTI
Iron-ore mining in Goa. Photo: PTI

The most interesting such solidarity was between the workers of the sponge iron plants in Raipur and the villages surrounding them, where those workers often lived. The villagers would protest and shut down the plants whenever they spewed out enormous quantities of black dust that settled everywhere, from the fields to the roofs of houses, and on clothes hung out to dry. The workers were being greatly exploited by the same plants through 12-hour working days, no safety gear and a pittance for a wage.

This was also the time when the local owners of sponge iron plants were being forced out of business because they had to purchase iron ore from the National Mineral Development Corporation (NMDC Ltd.) at exorbitant prices even while it was being exported to Japan from Bailadila in Bastar at less than a third of the value.

The Jan Aadharit Engineering Mazdoor Union approached the association of these factories and offered, “We will come out on the streets in support of your demand for cheaper iron ore, but you must install electrostatic precipitators in your chimneys so that the surrounding countryside is not contaminated, and you must also observe an eight-hour working day and pay minimum wages.”

Ultimately, NMDC Limited lowered the rates of iron ore for local industries, thereby preempting what could have been a most interesting alliance!

What would a ‘red and green’ perspective imply in today’s context, of accelerating climate change and other ecological crises unfolding in India, and growing right-wing hegemony?

I can’t speak about the whole of India, but in Chhattisgarh, I think the two main issues arising out of accelerating climate change and unfolding ecological crises are the conflicting demands for water in a changing climate and the energy transition away from coal.

First, the question of the changing monsoon, irrigation and water use. Even today, the predominant form of agriculture in Chhattisgarh is rain-fed paddy cultivation by small and marginal farmers.

For this section, the changing patterns of the monsoon due to climate change may sound a death knell since barely 30% of the total farmland in the state is irrigated. Farmers in Chhattisgarh are now becoming increasingly dependent on mandis for the sale of their paddy, and thus they were highly invested in the issues raised by the recent farmers’ movement, particularly the minimum support price (MSP), and expressed solidarity with it throughout.

A coal mine in Dhanbad. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

Farming in Chhattisgarh has not been as ecologically harmful as in Punjab, but crop options are few and farming will not be sustainable until other crops, particularly pulses, are also included in the MSP regime.

Even as monsoon patterns are changing, what were earlier abundant waters of the Mahanadi and the Shivnath rivers have been diverted through dams to industry. At times, when farmers fear they would lose a crop just because of the lack of a single watering, it has become common for them to attack dam sites and turn the sluice gates to ensure that water flows into canals and thence to their fields. The police chase them off, turn the gates back and file FIRs against them.

A particularly tragic fallout of the conflicting water use demands of agriculture and industry has taken place in the Janjgir Champa district. This district was once perennially drought-prone and, hence, with public investment, a large number of canals were built criss-crossing the district and agriculture began to flourish in the 1980s and 1990s. Then came a mad rush for building thermal power plants.

The irrigated lands of Janjgir Champa, which were now double-cropped, have been acquired for a ridiculously large number of unviable power plants. Most of these lie only partly constructed but the farmer has already lost his or her land.

So, one main issue is going to be how water resources could and must be diverted back to agriculture. Particularly in a situation of growing right-wing hegemony, and one that supports corporate interests, the farmers face a hard struggle ahead.

The second and even more difficult issue is: how can Chhattisgarh transition out of coal mining? Despite all the sweet talk about renewables, the fact of the matter is that all restrictions that had earlier been imposed on private commercial coal mining have now been removed. There is talk even of the public sector surrendering mines that it is unable to operate, and of those being auctioned to private parties. So mining is only going to increase. What will be the situation of different stakeholders then?

The Adivasis of North Chhattisgarh have been protesting vociferously against forests in the area being felled. Then there are the residents of villages situated close to coal mines that are being expanded. They are facing extremely serious environmental degradation.

Environmental activist and writer Rinchin and the villagers of Kosampali village in Raigarh district have painstakingly documented the serious degradation arising from their village being surrounded on three sides by coal mines and the violations of environmental clearance conditions by the Jindal company. These have been repeatedly acknowledged by expert committees, and yet no moratorium on mining has been passed by the National Green Tribunal.

The mine workers in the private sector, being mostly contract labour, work in extremely hazardous conditions, are paid a pittance and hardly have a voice. But there are still thousands of permanent workers in the South Eastern Coalfields Limited, for whom their job is a substantial source of security and well-being, and no doubt they will not be eager to leave it.

Finally, there are entire townships of employees and erstwhile employees of the public sector coal industry. They are mostly non-Adivasis, many of them not even from Chhattisgarh. They are prohibited from purchasing lands in Adivasi areas near where they currently reside. The public sector company is pressuring them to opt for voluntary retirement and vacate the decaying public sector townships which they have ceased to maintain decades ago. But where indeed can they go?

In this situation, it will ultimately be the task of the grassroots environmental activists, Adivasi community leaders, trade-union representatives and citizens’ committees of the mining areas to begin a dialogue with each other, to understand and appreciate each other’s concerns, and come up with out-of-the-box solutions to slowly but surely transition out of coal mining to safer and healthier energy options. This is no easy challenge.

There has been sustained resistance to coal-mining in Hasdeo Arand in Chhattisgarh and elsewhere in the country. But those protecting our old forests and other commons resources face indiscriminate repression. Your thoughts?

Yes, the Hasdeo Arand Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, consisting of 16 villages, has been opposing coal mining by the Adani group (for the Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Nigam Limited) for the past decade now. At one time, the Hasdeo Arand forest had been declared a ‘no go’ zone for mining on account of its biodiversity.

The Samiti and the village communities have passed gram sabha resolutions, petitioned numerous authorities, taken out padayatras, and approached the courts. They have faced arrests and threats by goons, including on Gandhi Jayanti, when they embarked on a 300-km march to the state capital, Raipur. But they are not the only ones.

Locals protest against tree felling in Hasdeo, Chhattisgarh. Photo: By arrangement

The Land Conflict Watch website documents roughly 630 land-related conflicts all over the country affecting some 78.5 lakh people, and this number can only be an underestimate. People in Dhinkia, Odisha, after 17 years of an ultimately successful resistance against POSCO, are now facing a fresh round of police repression as the Odisha government tries to transfer the land acquired to the Jindal Steel Works, rather than return it to the people.

Adivasi leaders of the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti, also in Odisha, still face the threat of cases alleging them to be Maoists. Only in 2021 have hundreds of cases of sedition against leaders and activists opposing the Sterlite plant at Thoothukudi been withdrawn by Tamil Nadu’s DMK government.

With the BJP returning to power in Maharashtra, pressure is being built to acquire land for the Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train, and environmental activists protesting the decision to once again acquire the Aarey forest for a metro car shed have been booked.

As pressures mount to hand over land for mining, industrial, and development projects, repression will only increase.

I hear that some industrial units in Chhattisgarh have removed sheds and other protective covering for workers. It leaves one aghast that they are doing this in an era of growing, but already extreme, heat stress. Do you have any details?

Yes, I got the shocking information that the medium-sized Vrinda Engineering Company that has four units in the Tedesara Industrial Area at Rajnandgaon, and which manufactures parts for the bigger factories, now asks its contract workers to work in the open, under the hot sun. It does not think it necessary, or even its responsibility, to offer any protection to the workers. Only the machines are given protective cover.

Now that the new labour codes have virtually done away with permanent workers by stipulating fixed-term contracts, and given that contract workers have too precarious an existence to unionise, it is unlikely that workers will be in a position in the future to demand even humane working conditions such as protection from the hot sun or cold drinking water.

What that means with rising daytime temperatures and growing heatwaves can be easily imagined.

Also read: The Social Consequences of India’s Heat Waves Spell Doom for the Working Poor

Trade unions are a crucial social force in combating climate change and in coping with the adverse effects of the ongoing energy transition on workers. But trade union engagement in India has so far been very uneven. What do you think needs to be done to take these issues out more to workers and unions?

Yes, trade unions are a crucial social force for democratising society in general. But at present they are struggling to cope with immediate existential questions. Permanent workers’ unions are dealing with privatisation, the pressure of voluntary retirement schemes and downsizing, and rapid technological changes. Contract workers unions, on the other hand, are dealing with sheer survival in the face of frequent repression, and are struggling to be recognised as participants in collective bargaining.

At least in Chhattisgarh, the Central and state governments seem only to be encouraging more coal mining, not less, though of course by the private sector. There seems to be no planned effort at an energy transition.

In such circumstances, to expect the workers in the industry to initiate the dialogue for a just transition at this point is perhaps a little impractical. But what is practical is for the trade unions to engage with the communities surrounding the mines they work in and to engage in their issues. This is something both the trade union activists and the village and community representatives need to acknowledge and work on.

We see some of this happening actively, thanks to the youth of the villages, many of whom are thwarted job-aspirants in the mines. Ten villages had been involved in opposing the expansion of the Dipka Mines in Korba district, an activity that the pandemic cut short. But much more needs to be done.

Aerial view of a coal mine in Korba district: Source: Google Earth

New jobs in solar power and other renewables, though large in number, tend to be unorganised and poorly paid. How can one address this? Would it help, as a climate collective has suggested, if these were permanent jobs organised by the government and in the public sector?

Yes, absolutely. Considering that an energy transition is going to result in the loss of livelihood for a large section of people working in and around coal mines and thermal power plants, providing secure jobs with good working conditions in the renewable energy sector would be the best way to ensure a smooth and willing transition for such affected people.

Given that equity and justice are central to addressing climate change, what would it mean, in our context, to develop more equitably?

Well, to start with, we can have a few guidelines: one, to review ongoing development projects honestly. For instance, is an Ahmedabad⎯Mumbai bullet train really necessary? Is a coastal road in Mumbai really necessary? For whom and at what cost?

Yes, a metro for Mumbai may be a necessity. But are we properly compensating and rehabilitating the affected? Have we priced the metro out of reach of ordinary Mumbaikars? And why should we expect public transport to be profitable in India, when all over the world it is heavily subsidised? Such issues are present in the public domain, but administrations go on as if they can’t see the elephant in the room.

Two: what about the development needs that people continuously articulate and that are ignored? Do the buildings built by contractors for the Slum Rehabilitation Authority have to be of such poor quality? Can’t the closed textile mills, that have profited so much from the sale of land, settle the dues of workers who have been demanding them for the past four decades?

Can’t the district mineral funds, which amass royalties from mining companies, be provided to the gram sabhas for genuinely improving living standards in the villages, instead of being used in a discretionary manner by the district magistrate? Can’t we stop felling trees instead of cutting them and then depositing money in overflowing Compensatory Afforestation Funds?

Can’t our rich municipal corporations and housing societies invest in structural changes and protective gear and equipment to really prohibit the deaths of manual scavengers in our septic tanks?

Will our governments answer these questions?

Three: we need to really listen to affected persons, not merely go through the motions of hearing objections and rejecting them. The new Land Acquisition Act 2013 actually provides a detailed process of assessing social impacts and public purpose. However, I have yet to see a case in Chhattisgarh in which the Act has actually been implemented and not been ‘exempted’ on one ground or the other.

The whole purpose of the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act’s consultation was to hear the affected Adivasi community, not to fabricate or coerce a resolution and file it away to get a forest clearance or a mining lease.

Similarly, environmental hearings have become an empty formality. Hyper-technical EIA [environment impact assessment] reports are filed in a language incomprehensible to the affected persons. Clearances are issued with scores of conditions attached, which everyone knows will never be complied with. Provisions which provide for public consultation must be complied with not just in letter but in spirit.

Four: with each development project, including those that have already been completed, we must honestly follow up what happened to the displaced/affected. Have they really been able to forge new lives and livelihoods? Or have they just entered the growing invisible mass of exploited unorganized labour, which could not survive lockdown even for a week and had to walk hundreds of kilometres back to their villages?

I think just doing the above properly will direct us towards more sustainable, more just, and more humane development trajectories.

Nagraj Adve is the author of Global Warming in India: Science, Impacts, and Politics. He has written and spoken on the climate crisis for the past 15 years.

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