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New Energy World
New Energy World embraces the whole energy industry as it connects and converges to address the decarbonisation challenge. It covers progress being made across the industry, from the dynamics under way to reduce emissions in oil and gas, through improvements to the efficiency of energy conversion and use, to cutting-edge initiatives in renewable and low carbon technologies.
Achieving a just energy transition means decarbonising the global economy without leaving anyone behind. Caroline Marwein, Digital Knowledge and Information Manager at the Energy Institute, explains what this means for the Khasi tribe, whose land, health and way of life is threatened by uranium mining.
The Khasi tribe live in the Indian states of Meghalaya and Assam, and parts of Bangladesh. Its plight is one that highlights the tensions that can exist between meeting global and national objectives of achieving net zero emissions and energy security whilst respecting the way of life of underrepresented nations, groups and people.
Born in the UK to Khasi parents, my family encouraged me to connect with Khasi traditions. The way people live in the villages of Meghalaya fosters a deep relationship with the land they live on, which holds geological importance beyond its uranium wealth. When Khasi people were consulted in the drafting of the UN Declaration on Indigenous Peoples’ Rights, this was fundamental to their argument that Indigenous Peoples should approve projects and policies that impact them and their land, directly highlighting their concerns about uranium mining to emphasise the importance of this consent.
Nuclear: saviour or menace?
Nuclear power is often considered one of the low-carbon energy technologies that the world needs to limit the rise in average global temperatures to 1.5°C by 2050. Although progress has been slow, India retains strong ambitions to build indigenous nuclear capabilities to deliver on both its climate and energy security targets.
However, not being a signatory to the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has made it challenging for India to import uranium feedstock. Consequently, it is increasingly focusing on exploring and developing its own uranium reserves, such as those held in Khasi land.
Meanwhile, tensions are already rising where exploratory uranium mining has taken place and this, in turn, is impacting plans to develop renewable energy projects. A few people have benefitted from jobs and land payments. But many, influenced by previous experiences, express opposition to the Indian government, which has been attempting to acquire land over the last two decades through the Uranium Corporation of India.
On top of concerns that the uranium could be used in India’s nuclear weapons programme, Khasi rights activists tell me they have measured harmful levels of radioactivity and witnessed other alarming effects from the mining, such as the displacement of people and damage to their health and the environment in over 20 villages.
The challenge faced by the government to push through its agenda is made harder by its own constitution that prescribes social, economic and legal justice for all its citizens with Scheduled Tribes having additional rights including protection of land, and representation and participation rights through, in theory, access to reserved seats in local government bodies. The Khasis I have spoken to say this doesn’t work well in practice. An additional barrier is the disconnect between national and state governments (observed recently by Sahaj Agrawal in his article for New Energy World).
If the government is to continue ‘developing’ Khasi land, it needs the buy-in of Khasi people – which it will only get through transparency, communication and open consultation. Whilst new roads and health facilities have been promised, it needs to check with those affected whether this would be sufficient compensation, both for the damage already done and for the harm more mining would cause.
On top of concerns that the uranium could be used in India’s nuclear weapons programme, Khasi rights activists tell me they have measured harmful levels of radioactivity and witnessed other alarming effects from the mining, such as the displacement of people and damage to their health and environment in over 20 villages.
Negotiating a just settlement
A compromise is possible. The Indian government recognises the Khasi tribe as one of the most disadvantaged groups in the country, and the Khasi people I’ve spoken to want equal access to financed education and energy so they can develop renewable energy solutions like wind and solar for their own decentralised grid. They draw inspiration from successful decarbonisation projects worldwide, such as a community-driven microgrid in Canada’s Inukjuak, which is reducing reliance on diesel fuel.
A re-think of government strategy that better reflects and respects the needs and wishes of the Khasi people is required. Afterall, access to energy is a human right, as is equipping disadvantaged people with the power to level up. Denying these rights endangers the rights of all people. Neglecting people, lives and livelihoods can lead to social exclusion and potentially violent unrest.
This year’s President of the UN’s annual Conference of the Parties (COP28), Sultan Al Jaber, calls for global solidarity to fast-track the energy transition, underpinned by a drive for inclusivity. Securing the necessary investment to expedite this is important. But establishing systems and processes that ensure everyone’s voices, particularly often excluded minority groups whose way of life are likely to be adversely affected, are heard and respected is vital.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly those of the author only and are not necessarily given or endorsed by or on behalf of the Energy Institute.