Swelling Indian National Opposition As Modi Plans To Expand Coal Mining
Coal miners in India’s resource-rich Meghalaya State. A government tribunal banned coal mining in the region in 2015.

New Delhi, IndiaPrime Minister Narendra’s Modi’s ambitious plan to use coal to power India’s economic revival after his government’s strict lockdowns flattened the wrong curve, bringing economic growth to a halt even as the infection epidemic curve continued to rise, seems to have run into significant opposition from unexpected quarters.

Since the launch of his plan earlier this month, state after Indian state has expressed disagreement with the Centre’s plan to commercially auction coal mines to the private sector, including international players. The latest to join the clamour of opposition by the states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Maharashtra, where more than half of the 41 mines are located – is the politically powerful chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee. 

Indian environmentalists have also decried a seemingly desperate announcement by the government to auction off 41 Indian coal mines, opening a largely government-controlled sector up to all private investment for the first time ever – and thus greatly accelerating domestic coal production. 

Coal mining by Eastern Coalfields Ltd., the company that operates national coalfields in Jharkhand and West Bengal states.

As of now, two government-owned mines produce over 90 % of India’s coal. Indian coal, known for its high fly ash content– and therefore pollution emissions – currently supplies about 80% of the country’s total coal needs, while the rest is imported.  Coal, in turn, powers about 44% of the total energy needs, compared to oil (24%) and biomass (22%) – though the latter is often burned in highly polluting domestic cookstoves emitting climate-changing black carbon particles. Also, hydroelectric power supplies 1.4% of the economy, leaving solar and wind to supply only around 0.8% of the country’s total power needs.

When it comes to electricity generation, the picture is just a little bit better. Coal powers 73% of electricity in India, while solar and wind fuel around 8% and hydro around 12% respectively, said Karthik Ganesan, Research Fellow, Council on Energy, Environment and Water.

Clean air campaigners had hoped that the glimpse of blue skies, clean water bodies and nature restoring itself in the limbo provided by the lockdown of all growth engines would encourage decision-makers to choose a growth recovery path that had low environmental impact. Health and environmentalist activists had expected the government to look at growth recovery more holistically, which meant including developmental indicators like health, education and quality of life – in the spirit of the recent WHO manifesto for a healthy green recovery, which calls to put a stop to fossil fuel subsidies using taxpayer money. 

Unfortunately, India seems to be ignoring all of the recent health and climate warming signals  –  the latest being the swarms of locusts that are invading parts of the country as it focuses on coal to fuel its recovery. 

Ostensibly, Modi’s rationale is that the move will help make India energy self-sufficient and quickly claw back the robust growth curve that had begun to fall off even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck the country.  However, investing heavily in coal also serves some of his key political alliances, some of whom – like the Adani Group – are also planning to export massive new coal reserves from Australia to India. 

Opposition to Modi’s Move Growing in India 
Existing, new, and planned coal mines in India (Credit: R. Pearce, T. Prater, S. Evans/Carbon Brief)

Despite the pressing economic challenges that India admittedly does face, some leading Indian politicians are beginning to speak out in opposition to the coal mining plans – bringing this sector back into centre stage for the first time since “Coalgate,’ a coal scam that tainted the previous government a decade ago. 

Jharkhand state has already approached the Supreme Court challenging this auction, followed by Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra writing to the central environment minister Prakash Javadekar objecting to the auction. The latest to join the rising voice of critics is the feisty Chief Minister of West Bengal (and Modi’s bete noire) Mamata Banerjee, known for her blunt statements and ability to stand up to the central government. 

Last Thursday, Ms Banerjee wrote to Modi on Thursday, asking him to reconsider the decision, saying that “this policy can neither bring foreign direct investments not can it bring technologies or know-how which we are unable to access today,” and noting that global investors are more interested in renewable energy projects rather than coal, which offers low returns. None of the 41 mines coming up for auction are located in her state. Her objection is in principle and adds political weight to the growing opposition.

States like Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh, where more than half the mines coming up for auction are located, have already voiced opposition to this decision, citing huge environmental and social costs:

“Riding on coal could spur the economy in the very short term and an extremely high ecological and social cost”, said Niraj Bhatt, Researcher in Environment and Climate Action for the Chennai-based Citizen consumer and civic Action Group (CAG), who works in the coal sector. The long term costs of promoting coal are disastrous, even in the government’s very first Climate Assessment report. The report warns of a four-fold increase in heat wave frequency and a doubling in the length of heat waves in India by 2100.

“It is inexplicable why the government is prioritizing coal for fast track revival of the Indian economy since the pandemic”, given the knowledge that’s available, added Bhatt.

 Many local communities also are opposed to the government’s decision to privatize coal mining, fearing that this will degrade the environment. Most of the 41 coal mines in auction are in pristine forest areas. 

Even at the village-level, several panchayats (local governance bodies that make the fundamental building blocks of governance) have asked Modi to withdraw this auction. “Nine village panchayats from Hasdeo Arand forest region have written to the Prime-minister asking for withdrawing the auction of five coal blocks in the region for commercial mining as it would impact their livelihood and culture,” said Avinash Kumar Chanchal, a grassroots climate activist who has written on the degradation of the Singrauli coal belt and displacement of local communities. 

UN Secretary General Also Decries Coal Plans 

 

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said there is no reason for any country to include coal in the COVID-19 recovery plans. Instead, investments should be made towards non-polluting energy sources; and opposition to a “black, coal-powered recovery” has grown in India.

It isn’t clear whether this diplomatic rap on the knuckles and growing opposition will succeed in stopping the government in its polluting tracks, especially if Modi’s public statements on privatising coal mines – framed in his signature style with the bells and whistles of patriotism and nationalism for “atma-nirbharta” or self-reliance – are anything to go by. Desperate for funds and eager to kickstart a sluggish economy threatening to fall into a recession, the central government seems prepared to roadroll its way through. Its desperation stems from predictions of the most severe recession in the past the four decades – The International Monetary Fund has predicted a global annual downturn of 4.5%, though ratings firm India Ratings has predicted the Indian economy to contract by 5.3% this year.

Renewable Energy Offers Untapped Potential 

Analysts say that the government is gambling on coal mining to generate over a million of jobs, as it is labour-intensive and rural communities are increasingly desperate for jobs following mass reverse migration since the pandemic began.

Additionally, there is built-in momentum for coal power development, since it is already well-established and subsidized by the government – whereas renewables are a new game altogether, and energy storage issues still remain unresolved – as some critics claim.  

Activists and economists counter that government forces have ignored the potential of alternative energy sources at the current juncture:

“There is huge potential to generate new jobs in renewable energy. Some analyses have estimated that more than one million jobs can be created by the renewable sector by 2022 if India can achieve its ambitious renewable target of 160GW,” said Chanchal.

“The illusion of low cost energy from coal has been debunked globally. Socially, environmentally and economically, coal is very costly. It’s bad economic policy to invest in high cost options when cheaper alternatives exist today,” added Laveesh Bhandari, an economist turned environmental advocate, who works at the intersection of sustainable employment and climate change.

“It’s almost as if we’re moving backwards. The whole world is moving away from coal. Several studies in India have shown the adverse effects of pollution caused by coal mining on the health of communities living within coal mining areas, especially on the respiratory system.”

Even before pandemic, deaths from air pollution have been a major issue in India. In 2016, household pollution led to over a million deaths in India, according to the WHO’s Global Health Observatory; and in 2012, ambient air pollution claimed 620 000 Indian lives, with a shocking toll of over 20 million disability-adjusted life years (DALY), according to the WHO’s global assessment of exposure and burden of disease.

However, now there is also the added factor of COVID-19, in which case chronic heavy exposures to air pollution will also increase vulnerability from the virus as well as mortality, said grassroots environmentalist and writer Rinchin, who goes by one name only and works with adivasis in Chhattisgarh. 

“Whether the Centre can still go ahead is a legal issue, but it will be bad form to go against the position of state governments. India is a federation, and something like mining that impacts not only the environment, but society itself therefore needs to be overseen, regulated and controlled by the state”, added Bhandari.

India’s Ambition – Regional Energy Supplier? 
Coal mining in India

While Modi is framing the coal auction as a move towards greater national self-reliance, the story is in fact more complex.  His plan may involve ambitions to become a regional energy-producing power. It also aligns national policy with the commercial interests of close political allies – such as Indian billionaire Gautam Adani, and head of the powerful Adani group.  

Adani is leading the Carmichael project – a massive mining initiative to export Australian coal to India. Just last year, the Australia’s government gave the go-ahead for the project, the world’s largest open pit mine, overriding stiff opposition from Australian environmentalists.  

Adani plans to use the Australian coal for a new $2 billion power plant that his company is building in India, which will also produce electricity for sale in neighboring Bangladesh. Ever since Modi was the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat – Adani’s birthplace and home region – Adani and Modi were known to have close links.

“The story of Adani and its Australian project illustrates why the world keeps burning coal despite its profound danger — and despite falling prices for options like natural gas, wind and solar,” the New York Times said last year.

In fact, India’s coal ambitions under Modi will not just undermine existing efforts to limit climate change and worsen air and water pollution within the country, they are also likely to compromise the entire region, setting an undesirable example of fossil fuel dependency in neighbouring countries.

Little Matter of Coal Gasification 
Air pollution in Delhi, India

Then, there is that little matter of Modi’s plans for coal gasification – a technology that could further reduce India’s dependence on imports, but at an even higher level of carbon emissions – as well as potential water contamination from coal pollutants.  

The government’s current plan is to promote “syngas” -a substitute for imported liquified natural gas produced by coal gasification – to produce urea in fertilizer. This will not only help reduce liquified natural gas (LNG) imports but also urea imports, leading to a lower import bill and greater self-reliance.

According to the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilisers, urea is currently produced using pooled natural gas, which consists of both domestic natural gas and imported LNG. The usage of locally available coal for making fertilisers would help reduce the import of LNG, the Ministry has said.

“The big question is when we have cleaner, cheaper, and sustainable renewable energy sources why do we want to invest in dirty and polluting technologies and energy sources?
India is already facing a climate crisis,” said Chanchal.

While natural gas is considered a lower climate emitter than coal, syngas is just the opposite. A study by Duke University found that syngas produced by coal gasification emits seven times more greenhouse gases than natural gas, making it a  huge contributor to climate change. 

“It contaminates both surface water and groundwater, and also emits greenhouse gases. If renewable energy is available and becoming cheaper day by day, then why does the government want to start commercial mining to create coal based energy.”

“Right now, the government is speaking like a climate leader but acting like a climate laggard by betting high on coal and promoting it,” added Bhatt.

Mining Could Also Increase Dangerous Human-Wildlife Conflicts
Dog sleeps on a bed of coal in Asansol, India

Along with the climate and air pollution risks, activists have also warned that expanding mining operations in the areas up for auction could trigger increased human-wildlife conflict.

“Among the 41 coal mines up for auction, most are situated in the dense forest of central India,” said  Chanchal. “These forests are home to large populations of elephants and other wildlife. Some proposed coal blocks are also near tiger reserves, like in Maharashtra. 

“Along with vast forest destruction, coal mines will also increase the human-wildlife conflict. The implications are countless from the displacement of adivasis, to the violation of the Forest Rights Act, to public health,” said Chanchal, who has also written The Singrauli Files about the degradation of that region. 

“We have already seen how coal mines destroyed the rich biodiversity of places like Singrauli, Korba, and in other coal belts where thousands of adivasi and local communities were displaced, their forests, livelihood and human rights violated. They are already living with serious health crises,” he added.

In a parallel move, Modi’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry also has launched an initiative to dilute existing environmental impact assessment norms for the creation of industries in pristine areas, including, but not limited to coal – a move that has been staunchly opposed by environmentalists – but action on that has been postponed by the courts until August. 

Modi Still Likely to Face Bureaucratic Challenges 
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Despite the burgeoning opposition, Modi remains determined and eager to develop the private coal sector. Against the wave of new criticism he has remained silent  – a typical tactic of response. 

However, India’s federal structure of governance may still slow down the realization of his vision considerably – giving environmentalist valuable time to mount a more organized local and global opposition. 

In the Indian governance model, the central government is expected to execute policy in consultation with state governments on a consensus model. More importantly, if the land is pristine forest land, as in this case, local self-governance laws and the FRA will make it challenging for it to move ahead with coal block allocation in such areas, which may still stave off this path to a quicker, but blacker, revival.

“Land is a state subject, the Centre cannot go ahead without support from the states,” said Bhatt. “The implementation of the Forest Rights Act is also very crucial in these regions. The government which is promoting ‘atma-nirbhar Bharat’ should consider these concerns of local communities and take appropriate action to strengthen the self-governance of the gram sabha,” adds Chanchal.

Image Credits: Environmental Change and Security Program, Flickr: Partha Sarathi Sahana, R. Pearce, T. Prater, S. Evans/Carbon Brief, Environmental Change and Security Program, Wikimedia Commons: Prami.ap90, Flickr: Partha Sarathi Sahana, Mike Bloomberg.