Indian coal mine workers fear job, social security loss amid shift to renewables

Jharkhand is home to India’s largest coal reserves with about 300,000 people directly dependent on mining for their livelihood.

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Farm workers use water pumped from a solar pump in Jagadhri. Image: Water Alternatives, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

Bermo, a small town in the Bokaro district, is part of the East Bokaro Coalfield in Jharkhand. As one leaves the Ranchi-Giridih highway to reach these coal mines, hundreds of people are seen involved in the transporting coal. One side of Bermo has Jarandih railway station, which is used to transport the coal to other areas of the country, while the other side has a coal-fired power plant at Bokaro. This coal mining ecosystem is the source of livelihood for thousands of people.

For instance, Ajay Kumar Saha, who is in his 50s, has been working in the mechanical department at a coal mine in Bermo for the last 28 years. Every day, when he returns home after completing his eight-hour shift, there are layers of coal dust over his hair, face, feet, and clothes.

But neither Saha nor many like him, who Mongabay-India spoke to, had any complaints about such life in the coal mines and in Bermo. The movement of coal-laden trucks on the narrow two-lane single road which results in coal dust throughout the town is a common occurrence for two decades now. For them, survival takes precedence over poor living conditions.

While the debate around energy transition and decommissioning of coal mines takes shape in India, many of the mine workers and local business owners, in fact, do not want the coal mines to close anytime soon. They worry about an uncertain future with fewer possibilities of securing jobs. The closure of mines without ensuring the livelihood of people involved in the mining sector could impact thousands of people.

Jharkhand, Odisha or Chhattisgarh, a good portion of their revenue comes from coal. Decommissioning coal mines in such areas can directly hit their state revenues.

Sandeep Pai, senior research lead, Centre for Strategic and International Studies

Jharkhand, a central Indian state, has the highest coal reserves in India with an estimated 83,152 million tonnes of coal – that is 27.3 per cent of India’s coal reserve, according to Jharkhand’s economic survey.

According to a 2021 study by United States-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Jharkhand has 144 mines employing around 300,000 people directly and around one million people indirectly. Mining takes place in 11 of the total 24 districts and contributes to 8.9 per cent of the Gross State Value Added (GSVA).

Over the years, several mines in the state have been closed and many more are expected to be closed down in the near future. According to official data, a total of 293 mines have been closed/abandoned in the country (as of April 1, 2021) including several coal mines from Jharkhand. A 2021 policy paper by iForest, a New Delhi-based think-tank, while talking about the unplanned closure of mines, claimed that over 50 per cent of the coal mines in Jharkhand are closed and of the operational mines, half are unprofitable.

Another 2021 study by iForest examined the status of the economic and social impacts on the population living in the coal mining region of Ramgarh in Jharkhand where several coal mines were closed down in the last 10 years. The study advocated for a timely policy framework to avoid disturbance to the livelihood of the population whose future was at stake due to the closed mines in the region.

“A single coal mine gives direct employment to hundreds of people who are involved in its extraction and transportation, etc. In our coal mine around 850 persons work in three different shifts and the mining operations continue 24×7. If coal mines are closed, there will be direct implications on the jobs of people involved in the mining sector. This could lead to huge loss of jobs,” Ram Nandan, 48, who has been working in a coal mine at Bermo as a fitter for the last two decades, told Mongabay-India.

As a fitter, his job includes maintaining the vehicles and other technical equipment for coal mining operations.

There are many others such as Ram Nandan who are sceptical about the scope of social security and other benefits for mine workers that they otherwise get from Central Coalfields Limited (CCL), a subsidiary of Indian government-owned Coal India Limited (CIL), which manages the East Bokaro Coalfield.

“If a person works in government-owned mines, they get pensions, gratuity, free medical treatment, housing, water, and subsidised electricity and education for their kids. Can we expect the same levels of social security if mining stops and renewable energy like solar industries expand? Can it also be able to assimilate the levels of employment a coal mine provides?” questioned Krishna Rai, who has been working in a coal mine in Bermo for nearly 30 years.

Coal sector workers are not aware of government’s plans

In any coal mine area, unions play an important role in ensuring the rights and welfare of the mine workers. They are also expected to play a crucial role in India’s energy transition.

Jaynath Tanti, a member of the Rashtriya Koyla Mazdoor Union at Bermo, said, in Bermo, the mine workers don’t have any idea about the government’s plan to partially decommission coal mines.

He emphasised that energy transition discussions can’t focus only on the coal mine workers. “Coal mine employees are just the tip of the iceberg in any coal mining area like Bermo. Look closer and you will see that there are truck drivers, repair shops, informal casual workers who assist mining companies in many other works beyond the mining zones. The whole region around a coal mine area revolves around coal and also the rural economy. Disturbance of such a generation-long ecosystem can have large ramifications and directly affect the jobs and livelihood of thousands of people located in such areas including formal and information workforce,” Tanti told Mongabay-India.

He also highlighted the role of women and said women work as “casual labourers” and are “involved in loading and unloading of coal”.

“But there is no representation from them … there is no one to hear their concerns. Each coal mine in Jharkhand potentially keeps alive the livelihood of thousands directly or indirectly. You ask anybody in such areas and they would not support the closure of mines but would rather advocate expansion of mines so that the future generation can get jobs in the mining sector as it is one of the labour-intensive job sectors,” Tanti added.

Munna Jha of Asar, an organisation working on environmental and energy issues, said while energy transition is already underway most state governments in India are not ready with their policies to address the issues.

“Most coal-rich states like Jharkhand still lack adequate policies, legislations which can govern the ‘just transition’ process so that justice can be done with different stakeholders working in the sector,” he said.

Energy transition in the current times in India in the energy sector refers to the shift from coal-based power to a clean energy drive fuel regime to reduce carbon emissions whereas Just Transition is a term used globally to denote the transition with justice where the welfare of all the affected parties in energy transition is ensured. Currently, the majority of power in the country is derived by the burning of coal brought from the coal-rich states of India like Jharkhand.

How is Jharkhand trying to fill the gap?

To fill the gap and ensure that all stakeholders are involved in the energy transition process, the state is working with several experts and institutions.

Sandeep Pai, who works as senior research lead with the CSIS in Washington, during a recent visit to Ranchi, said only a planned energy transition with multiple stakeholders including multiple government departments coming together can make it a sustainable option.

“Otherwise, the lack of planning could be disastrous. You take the example of any coal rich-state whether Jharkhand, Odisha or Chhattisgarh, a good portion of their revenue comes from coal. Decommissioning coal mines in such areas can directly hit their state revenues. Moreover, most of these states are also financially poor which is another significant challenge,” Pai told Mongabay-India.

On a query about renewable power projects contributing to the energy transition process, Pai emphasised that there are several formal and informal workers (with the latter being more in numbers and mostly unrecognised) who are dependent on mining.

“Renewable energy sector could hardly accommodate such huge numbers. If we want more jobs in the renewable sectors, it is mostly the manufacturing sector which can assimilate more workers. But if you look at the trend, even the coal companies working in Jharkhand seem to be investing in western Indian states like Gujarat for their manufacturing works,” he said.

According to sources in the Jharkhand government, the state department of forest environment and climate change has been working to bring a roadmap to enable just transition in the state. Jharkhand Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (PCCF) Ajay Kumar Rastogi claimed that Jharkhand would be one of the first states in bringing out a pathway for creating a future-ready economy.

A 2020 report from the Initiative for Sustainable Energy Policy (ISEP) noted that for Jharkhand, the main hurdles in the pathway towards just transition included-lack of investment, finance and policy besides poor institutional capacity and overreliance on coal for energy needs.

Gulab Chandra, convenor of Damodar Bachao Abhiyan and an environmentalist from Bokaro, said the state is gifted with so much of natural resource that could easily be harnessed for boosting employment and helping workers whose livelihood could get hampered due to the decommissioning of coal mines.

“The state is rich in several natural treasures such as waterfalls and products prepared by tribal communities which can increase employment opportunities for the people in areas that are being impacted by energy transition,” Chandra told Mongabay-India.

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.

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