The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) seems to have been overzealous in registering a case against environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta and his organisation, Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment, for violating Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) provisions. The gist of the allegations is their using foreign funds to encourage litigation that will stall existing and prospective coal-fired plants in India. While the sourcing of foreign funds and use is certainly something to keep an eye on, any criminalising of the act of opposition to coal plants, when pursued via legal means, is an absurd stance for a government to adopt. As a signatory to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and various key agreements, India has undertaken to gradually reduce its reliance on fossil fuel sources and be ‘net zero’, or source almost all power from non-fossil fuel sources by 2070. India has also consistently endorsed reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that speak of the urgency of ensuring global temperatures do not exceed 1.5°C of pre-industrial times, necessitating that global net anthropogenic CO2 emissions decline by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030. However, under principles of ‘Common and Differentiated Responsibility’, India has maintained its right to rely on coal plants in the interim as it is still a developing economy. The true cost of renewable sources (solar, wind and nuclear) remains much more than that of fossil-fuel power. The industrialised West, while slowing its fossil fuel consumption, continues to be reliant on natural gas and keeps falling short on its commitments to transfer technology and finance to developing countries to accelerate clean energy adoption. Thus, coal is a necessary evil, but still evil, and seeing it any other way belies scientific evidence.
India has 28.5 GW of coal power capacity planned and 32 GW of plants are under construction. The commissioning of many has been delayed due to insufficient environment clearances, land acquisition, and redevelopment and rehabilitation-related problems. These, however, follow from rulings by the National Green Tribunal or from a lack of adherence to norms prescribed mainly under provisions of the Environment Protection and related legislation. Funding for new coal plants is increasingly difficult with multilateral funding agencies refusing to fund such plants. Many coal plants run inefficiently and rely on lenient environmental curbs as they are critical to India’s power needs. Using legal remedies to limit the industrial exploitation of nature and ensuring just compensation is at the core of a civilised democracy; and efforts at undermining such a fundamental compact bodes ill for India.