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Life in India’s Oldest Coal Belt Shows Why Plans for Transition Must Begin Now

Life in India’s Oldest Coal Belt Shows Why Plans for Transition Must Begin Now

Workers at a coal mine in Raniganj coalbelt’s Jhanjra area. Photo: Vivek Gupta

  • The Topsi and Kunistoria collieries in West Bengal are among 100 active coal mines in the Raniganj coal belt, India’s oldest mine that has been operational since 1774.
  • Nearly 250 years of coal extraction have meant that all the major jobs in the region revolve around mining and associated activities.
  • Mining has also made the land infertile, while instances of land subsidence are also regular. Apart from working in hazardous conditions, the locals also suffer from pollution-related ailments.
  • Nevertheless, many still aspire to work in the mines because of the lack of alternate employment opportunities. What will their future look like in the light of India’s pledge to go net zero by 2070?

Paschim Bardhaman (West Bengal): Topsi in West Bengal’s Paschim Bardhaman district is a big village that is home to 3,500 households.

Barring a few multi-story houses, most of the houses here are small, kutcha ones. Common water taps, few and far in between, are the only source of potable water. It has no primary health centre. The only public school in the village is bereft of amenities.

As you enter the village, there is a vast abandoned land: an underground coal mine that was shut down more than two decades ago, in 1999, after the reserves were exhausted.

An elderly woman, Meera Bauri, was just outside the closed premises. She tells The Wire that after the mine’s closure, several locals – including her husband, a contractual mine worker for the previous 30 years – shifted to the nearby colliery in Kunustoria.

“There is no dearth of mining jobs right now, but daily earnings are not more than Rs 300-400 – despite the fact that extraction of coal underground involves a lot of risks,” said Meera.

She says the pay is grossly unfair, but asks, “What other options do we have? Working in coal mines is the only major source of livelihood.”

The Topsi and Kunistoria collieries are among 100 active coal mines in the Raniganj coal belt, which, as per the Paschim Bardhaman administration’s official website, has been operational since 1774. It is the “birthplace of coal mining” in the country.

Nearly 250 years of coal extraction have meant that all the major jobs in the region revolve around mining.

But, it has also made the land infertile for agriculture. Coal dust and other types of pollution have damaged the traditional agriculture system, says Reema Ghosh, a local researcher associated with the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur.

As local communities here have been deeply entrenched in the coal economy for centuries, their lives are closely intertwined with coal. “Around 80% of men in the village work as mining extractors,” said Anupam Mondal, the area mining official told The Wire.

Every morning, the men of the village go to the mines to extract coal and the women spend hours collecting coal ash and other waste dumped in nearby collieries. The women, interestingly, recycle the coal waste into small cakes and use it as cooking fuel.

A woman prepares cakes from coal waste in Topsi village of Raniganj coal belt. Photo: Vivek Gupta

Rekha Bauri, another villager, said they are compelled to recycle coal waste because refilling the LPG cylinder is expensive and out of most people’s budget.

Then, there is also indirect dependence on coal mines – from small vendors and workers in the transport sector. Even eateries just outside the village were named “coal field dhabas”.

Hazardous but ‘no escape’

Mining jobs are extremely hazardous. According to the villagers, episodes of injuries and fatalities during coal extraction are constant. Besides the drilling and blasting inside mines also causes land subsidence, cracks in houses and pollutes the air and water.

In a research report titled What is Just Transition, IIT Kanpur surveyed people in the Raniganj coal belt. It revealed that respiratory problems and skin diseases are prevalent in the area due to coal dust.

Imtiaz Ali Khan, a security supervisor at Kunustoria cold mine, says there is no escape from this life.

He says every year, there are at least four or five fatalities in the mines. He also remembers the deadly flooding in 1989, when 64 workers were trapped underground in a colliery. Six died instantly, while the others were rescued after an intense, four-day operation.

“Given a chance, the majority of us would want to move out. But there are no alternative job opportunities. Whether permanent or contract staff, we are all trapped here,” he adds.

Imtiaz sent his two daughters away for a better life. But not everyone is ready to take the plunge.

Simon Bauri, a youngster from Topsi village, did not think twice about taking up a coal mine job despite losing his father to a fatal accident while on mining duty. His father was a permanent employee in Eastern Coalfield Limited, a Ministry of Coal subsidiary, which runs all the mines in West Bengal and parts of Jharkhand.

“The job is risky and hard. But where else can I get a secure government job?” said Simon, who was employed on compensatory grounds after his father’s death.

But the situation of contract workers is fragile – they have no retirement benefits, no job security, and no major compensation.

Vishal Ravidas, 19, works as a coal loader and earns Rs 300-350 a day. He says his family’s life would be worse if the mining jobs are gone. “At least we are getting jobs near our homes,” he added.

The IIT Kanpur report also pointed out that despite all the problems, the youth of Raniganj coalfield still aspire to get a job in the coal mining industry. Many of them attend the nearby Harashankar Bhattacharya Institute of Technology and Mining for improving their employability.

The workers, as per the report, were reluctant to disclose mine-associated risks because if published there may be pressure to close the mine and subsequently, they will lose their job.

A view of the coal-dependent Topsi village in Paschim Bardhaman’s Raniganj coal belt. Photo: Vivek Gupta

Why are their lives in the spotlight?

In 2021, India pledged to achieve a net zero emission target by 2070. This means that the emissions of greenhouse gases – a primary driver of climate change and extreme weather events – will consistently be lowered and replaced by green cover and renewable energy.

These targets are part of global efforts to move away from a fossil-based economy and mitigate the effects of climate change.

Mrinmoy Chattaraj, an independent researcher who works on energy transition, told The Wire that India has not yet laid out how it plans to reduce dependency on coal as part of the net zero target.

“But the question is, what happens to local communities heavily dependent on coal or other fossils when India reduces its dependency on them?” Chattaraj adds.

This issue is especially relevant for India and other developing nations with a large number of communities that are fossil-dependent for their livelihood, as is the case of Topsi village and other villages in the Raniganj coal belt.

As per a study, more than 13 million people are currently employed – directly or indirectly – in the coal mining, transport, power, sponge iron, steel and brick-making sectors in India.

Also Read | For India’s Non-Renewable Energy Demand, Things Will Get Worse Before They Get Better: Report

This is why rehabilitation of affected communities – otherwise called ‘just transition’ – is important to the current debate, as countries pledge to move away from fossil fuels.

Just transition, as defined by the International Labour Organisation, means greening the economy in a way that is as fair and inclusive as possible to everyone concerned, creating decent work opportunities and leaving no one behind.

Children playing in a ground adjoining the coal mine in Kunustoria. Photo: Vivek Gupta

India in denial mode so far

So far, India appears to be in denial not just about rehabilitation but also the reduction of coal production.

Only last month, Union coal minister Pralhad Joshi stated in Parliament that there are currently no plans to introduce a uniform policy for just transition.

In India, he adds, the transition away from coal is not going to happen in the foreseeable future. Although India is pushing for renewable energy, the share of coal in the energy basket is going to remain significant in the years ahead for meeting its increasing energy needs.

Total coal consumption in India, he said, is yet to peak. He quoted the Economic Survey 2021-22, which projected coal demand in the range of 1.3-1.5 billion tonnes by 2030, an increase of 63% from the 2022 level.

He claimed that coal demand will continue to rise and may peak around 2040. “Thus, despite thrust on renewable, coal is going to continue as a primary source of energy to meet the growing development needs of India,” he added.

The minister’s statement was echoed during this reporter’s visit to the Jhanjra coal mine, one of the biggest in the Raniganj belt. Its general manager Ajay Kumar Sharma told The Wire that current annual coal production is 3.6 million tonnes, which they intend to increase to 5 million tonnes in a few years. Asked about India’s net zero target, he says the mine will be exhausted years before 2070.

A night time view of coal-fired power plants in Singrauli, Madhya Pradesh. Photo: accountabilityproject/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

But according to experts, even if India starts to reduce its dependency on coal and other fossil fuels many years from now, it cannot delay plans to provide alternate employment opportunities to fossil-dependent communities.

Professor Pradip Swarankar, the founder of the Just Transition Research Centre at IIT Kanpur, said that the concept of just transition must be understood in a holistic manner. He said just transition does not mean that the dependency on coal needs to be immediately reduced to the desired level. The ultimate goal is to achieve net zero emissions.

“But as we all know, this will take years, especially in a country like India, which is so large and heavily dependent on coal. Around 50% of its electricity currently comes from coal alone, despite the aggressive promotion of renewable energy sources,” he added.

He said whenever India is ready to cut down coal production, it must be fully prepared to help coal-dependent communities find alternate jobs.

Efforts must begin right away, Swarankar said, since it requires trial and error methods and exploring different solutions for different regions. Dialogue with all stakeholders is a big part of the just transition debate. Finance is also a very big factor in this transition – how and where will money come from?

“Right now, skill development may be one solution. Other solutions may be to revive abandoned mines for promoting fisheries or other employment avenues. There may be other unique solutions at the local level. But all this can only be achieved if we discuss it constantly at policy level,” he said.

Jharkhand has begun efforts towards this end. The state, which has the highest coal reserves in the country, set up a task force last year to explore sustainable ‘just transition’. The task force is holding a series of consultations with key stakeholders on the subject. Their initial report is expected in March 2023.

This story was part of Earth Journalism Network’s workshop on Just Transition.

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