Dreaming of Coal: Turnbull Goes to India

This was not a trip of orient driven romance, but one of dull, bottom line economics. Less curry than cabbage; more brown nosing than elevation. Australia’s increasingly wooden Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, did not exude colour or charisma as he was embracing the idea of India as a super modern trade market for Australian business.

Instead of a cultural and effusive glow, the PM was obsessed by India as beacon, with emergent dollar signs for Australian businesses.  A nagging feeling could not be dispelled: that he was the concubine at a sultan’s penultimate inspection wishing to be picked for the night. No writhing bliss, just plain venal power.

High on the list were discussions that would have made any crony government of dubious repute proud, notably on the issue of coal.  Here was Turnbull, essentially begging for the oil to be rubbed on him, the goons to do their worst. Australia was not just open for Indian business, but singularly parted for the foul smelling Adani coal deal worth $21 billion which refuses to go away. Big, bully boy Adani, characterized by a pleading billionaire who sees more on the horizons for his unscrupulous company.

A tone deaf government indifferent to climate change and environmental degradation still sees the vast continent of Australia as a rich body to despoil, to be rented and punctured, raised and polluted, so that a discredited industry can savour its moment in a dying sun.

Turnbull has been relentless in his climate change transformation, making his trip to India a truly skin shedding experience. With a degree of painful acts, an Australian leader, armed with Australian tax payer dollars to fund a railway line for the company, has reassured the spoiled Gautam Adani that his monster mine project in Australia is going to have no impediments.  Opponents will be blown off; regulations will be amended by pen or discretion.

While other industries in Australia suffer in their terminal, unassisted decline, checking out at the office of the Grim Reaper of Manufacture and Economics, Gautama’s plump and eager hands are out waiting for subsidies to grease them. He knows he is on to something good, even if every entity from potential financial backers to Greenpeace think otherwise.

The scene would not have been inappropriate in a Cold War discussion in reverse. Instead of seeing a developed, Western power forcing its hand over a client African state, by way of example, it was a Western country keen to offer up its environment, its local resources, to be plundered with merciless enthusiasm.

Even more troubling in this crude dance of power was its corollary: Adani, in the tradition of such corporate bullies in the past (think democracy defying United Fruit in Central and South America) was insisting that local laws be altered to fit its sensitive needs. Among the demands being made by the mining company was the need to immunise it from the threat native title interests might pose.  The message there was simple: bugger the Aboriginals; we have it made in dollars and cents.

The idea that Adani is somehow going to be a heavenly boon for India’s energy consumption is tantamount to praising the virtues of cyanide in illness.  In modest doses, it won’t kill, though it will leave an impression; given a kick along, and its will have the predictable, devastating result.

This is a company with appalling employment practices, an entity known for underpaying (when it bothers to) employees, including child labourers in some of its projects, and economical with the nature of what coal it will use.

Activists familiar with the predatory nature of such companies have kept the airwaves, blogs and papers busy with warnings that continued dealings with Adani are not only dangerous for the environment, but the general welfare of the people of India.  Both Australians and Indians stand to loose.

One such voice is Vaishali Patil, who keeps reminding Australian politicians that they are dancing with a demon – and a mendacious one at that.  In India itself, Adani has ravaged dozens of hectares of protected mangroves essential to water purification. As if that was enough, coal pollution “is killing our people and will continue to rise if we continue on the current trajectory” (The Saturday Paper, Apr 8-14).

All signs, it seems, point to a poisonous white elephant of monumental proportions. Even energy minister, Piyush Goyal, made the point in 2016 that the Indian government had no intention past the next three years to import more coal.  Adani’s rapacity is scheduled to continue for at least six decades, by which time it will slide into inefficient obsolescence.

The fabled oxymoron of clean coal does not even apply. The entire arrangement has little to do with getting a higher quality of coal.  Things are being kept dirty of the high ash type, with Australia and India intending to do it on the cheap so that a few will be enriched. This very fact, unfolding as the environment awaits a terrible blow, should end the argument. But for that to happen, it would have to end Turnbull first.

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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