The interconnections between India’s development aspirations, politics, and culture in the national debate over coal.



India’s coal rush is well underway. India is the world’s third largest coal consumer, and has untapped reserves of around 300 billion tonnes. Currently, 75% of India’s electricity, or about 170 gigawatts (GW), is generated from coal. This is expected to grow to about 285 GW by 2022 and 350 GW by 2032.

Currently India mines around 600 million tonnes of coal a year for domestic use. Anil Swarup, India’s former Secretary for Coal, argues that India will need to dramatically boost current production to 1.5 billion tonnes a year by 2020.

“We don’t have any other option. Presently, per capita consumption of energy in India is at the level of late 19th and early 20th century US. If you’re going to be called a developed nation, that will require a lot of power. Until an alternative becomes available, there is no other option but to bank on coal.”

Anil Swarup, former Secretary for Coal, India

Anil Swarup talks animatedly
Anil Swarup, former Secretary for Coal, India.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the Paris Climate Summit in November 2015 that developing countries like India “need carbon space to grow”. Effectively, this means burning more coal to maintain high economic growth and provide electricity to the 300 million Indians currently without it. But there are major social and ecological consequences of India’s coal rush.

In May 2017, three former officials of the Coal Ministry were sentenced to a fine and two year jail term.

Land use conflicts have erupted over new coal mines or expansions of existing mines, where acquisition of forest land for mines and coal-related infrastructure has occurred. Coal-based economic growth is driving up greenhouse emissions in India, which is now the third largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world. India, however, has one of the world’s lowest per capita greenhouse gas emissions rates, at 1.7t in 2010. Energy poverty is still a major issue; but new coal-fired power stations often do not feed the grid, instead being ‘captured’ for specific industries.

As in our Australian and German national case studies, in India coal is a hotly contested commodity. A political crisis was sparked after the 2012 Comptroller and Auditor General of India reported that new coal blocks (sites for exploration and mining) had been allocated to companies ‘by invitation’, rather than by tender. By foregoing its right to auction coal blocks the central government had missed out on Rs 1.86 lakh crore trillion rupees (AUD37 billion) between 2004 and 2011. These findings and subsequent court cases were dubbed ‘Coalgate’ in the media. In May 2017, three former officials of the Coal Ministry were sentenced to a fine and two year jail term.

Needless to say there are multiple dimensions to the future of coal in India. We are exploring the interconnections between India’s development aspirations, politics, and culture in the national debate over coal.

All quotes attributed to individuals are from interviews conducted for the radio documentary series, Beyond the Coal Rush, one of the outcomes from this project.

Case study: Chhattisgarh

We are finalising a regional ethnographic study of coal production in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh. Sixteen per cent of India’s coal deposits are located in the state of Chhattisgarh, which contributes 18 per cent of the national coal production. Local communities are engaged in a contest with Adani and other mining companies to secure their forest rights and restrict expansion of coal mining.

Our study focuses on an area of the Hasdeo-Arand region in Chhattisgarh, where Adani already has one mine and plans to expand its operations. If the proposed expansions and adjoining mines go ahead, several villages, farmlands, and large areas of the nearby forest will be bulldozed to make way for mining.

Coal trucks on the road near Sahil Village
Coal trucks on the road near Sahli Village.

Forest near Sahli Village
Forest near Sahli Village.

“If our land is gone then everything is gone.”

The villagers are adivasis, or tribal people, whose land rights are protected by law under India’s constitution. But these rights are increasingly coming into conflict with coal; a massive seam bearing a billion tonnes of coal runs right under the affected villages and the surrounding forest.

“We are like kings on our land, we tribal people,” says Chetu Ram, chief spokesman for the Gram Sabh the village council of Sahli village, “if our land is taken away from us today there will be no one to look out for us.”

He and his fellow villagers make it plain that they will fight for their land and their way of life. “We will not let them end our settlements like this,” says Ram, “if our land is gone then everything is gone.”

Chetu Ram
Chetu Ram, chief spokesman for the Gram Sabha.

The villagers are supported in their struggle by Chhatisgarh Bachao Andolan (CBA) a state level network of local grassroots organizations. Alok Shukla, who co-convenes the CBA, says preserving the forests is vital both for the livelihood of the villagers, and the local environment

“This is an area of rich, dense forests. The forests are rich in bio diversity and wildlife habitat. Previously the Environment Ministry had declared this whole area a no-go area for mining. They stated that mining would not be allowed here”.

Alok Shukla
Alok Shukla, organizer with Jan Abhivakti.

But in 2011, the then environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, approved Adani’s PEKB coal mine adjoining Sahli village, against advice of the Forest Advisory Committee that reviewed the proposal for forest diversion in favour of the mine. Ramesh says there was an “overriding economic interest” in the mine proceeding.

The Minister’s decision has been the subject of legal action in India’s National Green Tribunal that set aside the forest clearance for the mine and asked the FAC to review its decision. This went all the way to the Supreme Court, and is pending final decision.

Jairem Ramesh
Jairem Ramesh, former Environment Minister, India.

Our project investigates the links between these local contests over coal mining and the larger context of India’s energy and climate policy, exploring the involvement and interplay of different actors, including local communities, NGOs, mining companies, state and central government, and the legal system.

Policy, Politics and Culture

The future of coal is increasingly part of India’s debate about climate policy. At the Paris climate summit in November 2015, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, declared that, in the 21st century, “the world must turn to the sun to power the future”. Modi launched an “International Solar Alliance” to encourage investment in solar energy, and promised that India would install 175 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2022.

The Modi government has quadrupled the national levy on coal (INR 200 (USD 3.2) per tonne of coal) in order to finance renewable energy. The government also plans for a doubling of renewable energy to 12 per cent by 2022, and an end to coal imports within 2 or 3 years.

According to PWC, the Indian coal industry aspires to reach the 1.5 billion tonne (BT) mark by 2020 as an attempt to reduce imports of coal (especially coking coal). It is clear, however, that coal continues to be the mainstay of Indian growth, and the main source of rising emissions.

Coal allocation reform is still in underway. As a result of “Coalgate”, The Indian Supreme Court had cancelled 204 (of 218) coal blocks allocated since 1993, and the new allocations attracted over 2 trillion rupees (AUD 40 billion). This revision of coal allocations, as well as conflict over land acquisition, inadequate transport infrastructure and capital flight had limited the scale of India’s coal boom. Since the enactment of the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Act, 2015, 82 coal blocks have been re-allocated through an auctioning process by the Ministry of Coal.

Meanwhile, across the country local conflicts over coal continue in particular after the re-allotment of coal blocks in the states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha and due to the pollution impacts of coal-fired power facilities across the country.