Toxicities, illegalities and protest: a landscape of coal in South India
This thesis focuses on the construction and operation of state-owned coal-fired thermal power plants in Ennore, a coastal peninsular suburb located to the north of Chennai (Tamil Nadu, India). At the time of my research, Ennore was witnessing the development of nearly 2500 megawatts of coal-based energy projects, to add to the 3000 megawatts of coal-fired thermal power that was already generated on the peninsula –– a situation of energy investment that stood in stark contrast with the Indian government’s publicized stance about moving away from fossil fuels. To unpack the effects of this seeming contradiction, I build on thirteen months of ethnographic fieldwork (2018-2019), where I investigated the contemporary and everyday interactions of coal and coal-based infrastructures with Ennore’s socio-natural and political contexts. In exploring how people in Ennore made sense of the presence of coal that surrounded their lives, the chapters in this thesis describe a ‘landscape of coal’ composed of three different yet related field-sites from which I observed and participated in these interactions. These sites included people’s bodily engagement with the multiple toxic substances that emerged from the combustion and circulation of coal; the range of financial and contractual illegalities that came embedded with the construction and operation of the power plants; and the shifting forms of mobilization and protests staged by Ennore’s residents, trade unions and health activists in reaction to coal's presence. In researching this ‘landscape of coal’, I forward three interlinked arguments in the thesis. By attending to the artisanal labour of the fishermen who lived by Ennore's power plants, the first part of this thesis explores the ways in which toxic coal (together with the many by-products of its combustion and circulation) seeped through different bodies and environments. In using the analytic of “toxicity”, I argue that research on coal and its infrastructures must broaden the range of its objects to consider the variegated porous relations that coal affects: between skin-born afflictions and the disappearing welfare state, between stilting rivers and changing labour markets, between embodied physical skill and sub-contracted informal work. In the second part, the ethnography moves to trade unions and explores how the ongoing presence of coal affected labour relations in and around Ennore. Through following a union leader in his meetings with different stakeholders around the power plants, I trace the ways in which coal and its circulation facilitated a range of illegalities that preserved uneven power structures and made livelihoods increasingly precarious, putting at risk any contractual binds by which labour was set to be renumerated or protected. Thirdly and finally, I foreground the ‘politics of perceptibility’ that residents, trade unions and activists engaged with in Ennore, as they selectively drew the attention of different publics to this landscape of coal, in a bid to further their fluctuating interests. I show how their performances oscillated between vehemently casting light upon the government's own illegal practices, and discreetly aligning themselves with various other concealed illegalities that surrounded the power plants. As the thesis unfolds, the initial contradiction remains in the backdrop: how did different residents of Ennore — whose lives were drawn in such intimate relations with coal and its infrastructures — collectively and individually make sense of the mismatch between the effective presence of coal, and the surge of global interest in its removal? In conclusion, by looking at recent coal-linked developments that held broaden the contextual basis that surrounds this project, I show how the desire for coal-free futures is still forecasted to overlap uneasily with the ongoing presence of coal.