After Plundering  Earth, The Moon’s Next In Our Post-Covid Plan?
The moon, covered by clouds. (Photographer: Neha Sinha)

After Plundering Earth, The Moon’s Next In Our Post-Covid Plan?

BloombergQuintOpinion

Last month, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order that would enable the United States to mine the moon. The purpose was to mine minerals and water, and eventually set up a lunar colony. But, it was also on a first-come-first-serve, winner-gets-all basis. Vice President Mike Pence stressed the importance of the U.S. making the first stake for mining, stating: “NASA already knows that the lunar south pole holds great scientific, economic and strategic value, but now it’s time to commit to go there.”

Experts say the question is not just of mining but the idea that one country can brashly go ahead with a damaging exercise without securing an international sustainability regime. So there may be more craters on the moon, its craggy beauty pockmarked without a general global consensus. That it comes during a time when the earth is struggling with the worst pandemic in recent times, is just an outlier.

The full moon, on Buddha Purnima, May 7, 2020. (Photographer: Neha Sinha)
The full moon, on Buddha Purnima, May 7, 2020. (Photographer: Neha Sinha)

Repeating Past Mistakes

If this surprises you, consider this. Delivering a ‘stimulus’ package, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman also had some space talk. Private companies will be able to use the Indian Space Research Organisation facilities and collaborate on space technologies and space travel. It is not immediately clear how this could be linked to the response to Covid-19. But what is even more concerning is the bet the government has placed on coal mining. More than 50 coal blocks will be opened up, with a renewed fillip to finding and mining coal.

Epidemiologists have stressed the link between disturbing habitat and the spread of zoonotic disease.

Most of India’s coal and bauxite reserves are in deep forests – in and around tiger reserves, many in Central India.

Coal mining is done in a manner that leaves pits on the land surface, and apart from destroying forests, also creates water, air, and soil pollution.

Flames break through the ground from coal fires that burn at an open cast coal mine in Jharia, Jharkhand. (Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg)
Flames break through the ground from coal fires that burn at an open cast coal mine in Jharia, Jharkhand. (Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg)

In a recent order, the National Green Tribunal found Jindal Power Ltd. and Coal India Ltd. guilty of illegal mining in Raigarh, Chattisgarh. The court stressed that the mining caused drying up of water bodies, and burning coal pits caused soil pollution and long term degradation of health. Coal also requires transportation, which means laying roads and railway lines in forests. And this is on the anvil: the government has announced Rs 50,000 crores to transport coal in its stimulus package.

The new concern that the world is grappling with—of disturbing wildlife and causing the spread of disease—finds no resonance in these new plans, which are basically old wine in a new bottle.
Forest landscape in Chattisgarh, a mineral rich area. (Photographer: Neha Sinha)
Forest landscape in Chattisgarh, a mineral rich area. (Photographer: Neha Sinha)

What Ends Up Being ‘National Interest’

A NITI Ayog report from 2015 points out that the installed capacity of coal power is more than peak demand. It suggests coal is undesirable because of the high import bill and volatile rates, and that the rest of India’s (unmet) energy demands should be met by renewable energy. “From a pure macro-economic perspective, reaching 175 GW RE by 2022 could dramatically reduce the coal import bill in 2022. Then there are environmental benefits (less pollution), social benefits (local employment opportunities), and investment inflows, which may need to be monetized to assess the complete range of benefits,” the report says. Others feel the life of coal-generated power is limited now and the early-construction of coal should be revisited.

This takes me back to the very framing of mining in new places as being in the national interest. Despite evidence pointing at it being a destructive activity—whether on the moon or in Indian forest—it remains politically desirable. The lure of jobs in new sectors—or the plummeting prices of solar power—have little resonance even if coal is becoming obsolete.

There is now a curious parallel between the U.S. and India. At a time when people are still sick or dying, the discussion of space travel is tone-deaf.

The other way to look at it is that in an absence of imaginative solutions, a country is happy to leave a trashed, polluted place to move on to another, newer territory.

Days before the announcement of the stimulus package, the National Board for Wildlife has cleared the decks for coal mining of the hills in Assam’s Dihing Patkai, an elephant reserve with a rich forest. NBWL member R Sukumar recommended a “cautious approach for preserving the basic integrity of forested hill slope”. Unfortunately, neither mining—nor disease—are so sophisticated so as to be cautious. The hills will soon resemble moon craters. Assam has a mounting problem of human-elephant conflict, caused primarily by land-use change, driving elephants to towns, fields, and villages. This incautious mining will exacerbate the problem.

Clouds cover a limestone quarry in East Khasi Hills in Meghalaya. (Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg)
Clouds cover a limestone quarry in East Khasi Hills in Meghalaya. (Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg)

Another proposal – the destruction of over 2,78,000 trees for a dam in Dibang, Arunachal Pradesh, is being considered with the following imaginative solution. Don’t cut the drowned trees. Let the submerged, dead trees stand, so birds can sit on them. It is worth stressing that the country’s energy mix plan should have moved on from fossil-fuel intensive coal and big dams that destroy entire mountains.

The sugar-coating of forest destruction, and the denial of more imaginative decisions, bring just one metaphor to mind. When feeling tired of a sickened earth, go to the moon!

Neha Sinha works with the Bombay Natural History Society. Views expressed are personal.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.

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