The New York Times reported today that India plans to double its reliance on coal power over the next five years. The country already extracts 565 million tons of coal each year from open-pit mines and hopes to increase that number to 1 billion tons by 2019. The Times correctly points out that for a country like India, which already has dangerously high levels of smog in urban areas, this is a troubling development.

India’s Power minister, Piyush Goyal, is quoted in the article arguing that India needs coal in order to brings its poor out of poverty. In other words, he says that the Central Government’s choice is either coal or widespread suffering.

Minister Goyal’s framing of the issue in terms of coal or poverty is a false one. Firstly, it’s false because India is already investing significantly in sustainable sources of energy that could provide a viable alternative to coal power. In our previous blog we wrote about one of India’s Solar Missions, which seeks to increase India’s solar energy capacity by leaps and bounds. We also wrote of numerous companies that specialize in building small-scale solar plants designed to brings power to rural areas. If India was to increase its investment in solar technology and especially in developing a decentralized solar power infrastructure, it could provide electricity in a sustainable and responsible way.

The solar lanterns that the Barefoot College in Tilonia, Rajasthan is teaching poor women and women’s groups to engineer needs massive funding support to spread to every one of the poorer, often dalit colonies all over India.

The people most affected by the environmental and health consequences of increased coal consumption are often India’s poor who have much higher exposure to urban smog. However, the middle-classes and India’s elite also have high incidences of respiratory infections due to air pollution. The commonness of such infections has given many a fatalistic attitude towards respiratory illness, even though it could be prevented if pollution was minimized. It’s not common for many in India take protective measures to prevent respiratory infection, such as wearing a facemask.

Alternative development plans for sustainable enery would benefit all of India, whether poor or elite, and they would demonstrate that India truly has the potential to be a global leader for sustainable development.