Phasing Out Fossil Fuels: View From A Dying Indian Coal-Mining Community

Posted by Apoorva Satpathy in Society, Staff Picks
February 3, 2018

Renewables will be consistently cheaper than fossil fuels in the coming two years, says a recent cost study from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). The intergovernmental agency publishes reports like “Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2017” to help inform policy-makers around the world about the feasibility of the energy transition.

I currently work as an intern on the statistics team at IRENA’s headquarters in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. In this role, I attended IRENA’s annual general assembly in January, followed by the World Future Energy Summit, where energy leaders and policy-makers advocated for renewables to reduce carbon intensity. Over the past week, I have followed the tweets from the World Economic Forum in Davos, where France has pledged to join a growing league of countries in shutting down coal plants completely.

As important as I believe these issues are, none of these forums could seem farther away from my birthplace in Ramgarh district, Jharkhand. My home is still the struggling West Bokaro colliery.

Bokaro coal mine (Image source: Jay Sheth/Facebook)

As the name suggests, the town depends on a coal mine for its livelihood. Yet the local community, once comparatively prosperous for the area, is vanishing bit by bit – all due to the continuous blasting of the surface and the digging (at increasing depths) to fetch coal. As the pits widen, the town could soon vanish from the map of India, leaving me with a non-existent birthplace in my passport.

Reliance on fossil fuels – and coal, in particular – is indisputably harmful to our collective health and welfare. People in mining communities are the first- and worst-affected.

“The encroachment of the mines in the residential areas has severely multiplied the cases of respiratory infections – such as the multi-drug resistant tuberculosis and coal worker’s pneumoconiosis, along with the hardening of water (due to contaminated soil) leading to an increased number of patients with gall bladder and kidney stone formations,” says Dr BK Sahu, head consultant, surgery, in the hospital in the West Bokaro colliery.

“A transition to renewable energy would reduce the area’s terrestrial contamination and provide some relief to West Bokaro Colliery’s asthma patients,” he adds.

Yet, while the government weighs its options for increasing the share of renewables in the national energy mix, people in coal-mining communities fear the loss of their livelihood. I, too, worry about the loss of my childhood – the setting of stories that I hope to recount to my grandchildren one day as I implore them to go there for a visit.

Yet, the town’s destiny remains tied to the mine – whether we like it or not.

“Mining is still a part of the project for the coming 30-40 years – and then, the town will not exist anymore,” says BV Sudhir, the chief engineer from the West Bokaro colliery.

Anil Rout, senior manager of the coal beneficiation plant, says that the town’s residents will be helped and relocated to the nearby cities of Ranchi and Ramgarh.

“The residents are asked to shift to the nearby cities as the tentative time for complete evacuation is almost 10 years,” he says.  “Eventually the whole population must be shifted, for the area has to be excavated completely,” he adds.

The town is dying and I am helpless. What steps can my country take to save my birthplace? Will shutting down the mines help? What will happen to the workers of the mines who are heavily dependent on it? These questions put me in a dilemma whenever the idea of phasing out coal completely comes into discussion.

Renewable energy is surely a clean option – and it is certainly a way to make the energy transition happen. Still, to stop everything suddenly doesn’t seem to be a healthy solution either. There’s an entire population dependent on it – either as mine workers or in the form of the small shops taking care of the needs of these workers. Directly or indirectly, everyone in the area will suffer if the transition happens too rapidly.

‘Energy democracy’, including a just transition to sustainable practices, will be essential as India’s fossil fuel usage is phased out.

India has to come up with suitable policies, labour and sector-level development plans, along with institutional arrangements, to ensure that this transition is effective and sustainable. Such policies should encompass the growth of sustainability programmes or organisations, creation of jobs and regulation of investments for the same. Low-carbon transition (as a climate action) is identified as a way forward by many organisations and collaborators.

In this context, it would perhaps be relevant to note that We Mean Business is a global coalition of non-profit groups advocating for a just, sustainable energy transition.

In managing these crucial changes, governments have to be aware of how situations of energy poverty and social injustice can crop up unexpectedly, especially in the absence of holistic planning and broad consultation. Public-private partnerships and the mobilisation of grants or finances can aid the transition process. Adoption of green practices and greening economies can help build a climate-congenial environment.

Apart from the slogans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the news about countries forging ahead to shut down coal plants, I wonder when India will take that bold step – keeping in mind the pace of our economic development and our surging energy demand.

Another recent analysis from IRENA, “Water Use in India’s Power Generation”, says that the country can generate 61% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030 – offering a flicker of hope regarding reducing dependency on fossil fuels.

While the energy transformation lies, to a large extent, in the hands of the higher-level decision-makers, I hope it can save small towns with dirty coal mines – like Bokaro.


Featured image used for representative purposes only.

Featured image source: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images