SHAKTINAGAR, India — In the hilly Singrauli region of northern India, animals feed on ash-covered grass, smoke stings the eyes and burns the throat, and the reservoir is foul with toxins such as mercury and arsenic. Even the breakfast eggs are gray.
The critically polluted landscape was once forest and fields of grain and mustard flowers. But after four decades of industrial development, this is India’s power hub. More than a dozen coal mines and power plants spread over two states generate a fifth of the country’s electric power. The region is a key driver of India’s greenhouse-gas emissions, the third-highest in the world for a single country.
Coal production is slated to expand here in the coming months, part of the new government’s ambitious push to double India’s output to more than 1 billion tons annually to meet the needs of a burgeoning economy — with growth now set to outpace China’s, according to several forecasts.
As President Obama arrives in India on Sunday for talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, U.S. officials had hoped to announce a deal on climate change that would be a modest complement to the historic agreement the United States reached with China in November.
But little progress has been made because India and China are in very different places in their development, experts say. India’s energy deficit is staggering. An estimated 300 million people — roughly equal to the population of the United States — live without power. The national power grid was completed just last year.
Renewable energy remains scant and expensive. American and Indian officials have been trying to reach a deal that would soften liability concerns and clear the way for companies to invest in India’s nuclear industry. But even if an accord is reached, proposed nuclear power reactors would take many years to complete.
Coal, by contrast, is plentiful and available. India has the world’s fifth-largest coal reserves and must use the fossil fuel to power growth of 7 or 8 percent in gross domestic product, said the country’s coal secretary, Anil Swarup.
“The question is, what do you have in hand? We have coal,” Swarup said. “There isn’t much choice available.”
Despite international pressure, India’s climate negotiators have been reluctant to commit to specific emissions targets in part because the country must depend on coal as its primary energy source for at least the next decade, officials say.
“The growth of coal is inevitable,” said Navroz K. Dubash, senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. “India is still an energy-scarce society that is not able to keep the lights on in many parts of the country and still needs to build up much of its infrastructure. Given the energy needs, it is likely coal will grow — for how long and how much, it’s hard to say.”
Even under the best-case scenario, coal will continue to account for more than 60 percent of the country’s power capacity until 2030, according to one government model, although renewable energy such as wind and solar power will rise from 6 percent to 18 percent.
Modi has called for a “saffron revolution” of renewable energy expansion to “meet India’s growing energy demand.” An early enthusiast of renewable energy and author of a book on climate change, he helped create one of Asia’s biggest solar parks in his home state of Gujarat. His administration announced this month an ambitious goal of 100 gigawatts of solar power by 2022, requiring $100 billion in investment.
India is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change, a United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in a report last year. Rising global temperatures could hamper economic growth, endanger food security and make the country more vulnerable to extreme weather such as floods, storms and drought, the report found.
Environmentalists in India acknowledge the looming threat. But they have long argued that the United States and other nations bear a greater responsibility for the cumulative damage to the environment because historically India’s per-capita carbon emissions are low. Per-capita carbon emissions in India, measured in metric tons, are 1.7, compared with 6.2 for China and 17.6 for the United States, according to the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center.
“Certainly the U.S. is perceived not to have done its fair share,” said Prodipto Ghosh, a distinguished fellow at TERI, the Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi. “But people hope that Obama and [Secretary of State John F.] Kerry can push the U.S. agenda forward so the U.S. can make up for lost time.”
U.S. officials will be seeking a significant plan from India that can be part of a global climate deal later this year. If nothing is done, India’s emissions will continue to rise as other countries peak and decline, according to estimates.
The challenge for Modi’s government, officials say, is to juggle international environmental pressure with the pressing basic needs of round-the-clock electricity and toilet access for every home, key goals for Modi’s fledgling government.
Even exploiting the country’s vast coal resources will bring “huge challenges,” Swarup said. “It’s easier said than done.”
Shortages and power outages still occur because the country lacks sufficient manpower and transportation links to move the coal. The previous government was enmeshed in a scandal over the allotment of mining blocks to private companies that has yet to be resolved.
To mitigate the environmental impacts of doubling down on coal production, the country hopes to increase the number of its “super-critical” power plants, which burn coal with higher efficiency. India’s coal has a high ash content, which makes it dirtier and less efficient than coal in other countries. Only about 6 percent of India’s power comes from such plants.
In the Singrauli region — which straddles the states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh — the rapid industrial development has brought more-reliable power to the area, along with jobs. Yet the human risks involved with continued coal dependence are on full display in the villages surrounding the power plants and mines.
The small village of Chilkatand sits between a coal mine to the north and the government-owned National Thermal Power plant to the south.
Living so close to these sites has severely impacted the residents of this small village, according to Manonnit Ravi, 28, a local activist. He worries about what they will do when mining is expanded.
“If production increases, blasting will increase. Our houses already have cracks in them. And we don’t have an option to move anywhere,” he said.
Trucks from the nearby coal mine rattle past 24 hours a day, and villagers gather by the side of the road to collect the fallen scraps for their hearths. In the evening, the smoke from those fires mixes with the pollution from mining and power generation and makes visibility difficult. Everything is coated with a thin layer of grit.
Almost everyone in the village has a respiratory ailment. Others have begun to suffer more serious health effects from drinking water contaminated with mercury and arsenic and other chemicals from what environmentalists say is coal waste seeping into groundwater and being dumped into the local reservoir. Sludgy pools of floating ash gather at the shoreline.
A report from Greenpeace found that residents in the area suffer unusually high rates of asthma and other respiratory ailments, tuberculosis, and chronic skin diseases.
R.B. Singh, a surgeon and senior medical officer in the area, has called coal pollution a “slow poison.”
“It is near impossible to go out for a morning walk or morning run here,” Singh said in an interview. “During the day it’s hot and dusty and polluted, then at night all that coal and dust settles on the ground, on the plants, on everything, because of the dew. That’s the air we inhale when we wake up and head out. You can imagine how unhealthy and uncomfortable it is. No surprise how many people report wheezing, lung and skin problems.”
A spokeswoman for the power corporation, which operates three plants in the area, said in an e-mail that ash is disposed of in “scientifically designed ash ponds,” turned into a slushy substance and “is being re-circulated to a large extent at present.” But ash ponds can create their own environmental hazards.
Ashwani K. Dubey, a Supreme Court lawyer who grew up in the Singrauli region, successfully argued before the country’s National Green Tribunal — a body that oversees environmental offenses — that companies working in the area should be made to supply clean water to the villages. So far about 90 filtration centers have been installed, serving about 50,000 residents. He says power plants and coal companies that contributed to polluting the area should not be able to expand until cleanup is completed and additional controls are in place.
“Production should be there, but it should not be at a cost of lives of the people,” he said.