Climate change affects countries, regions, and communities disproportionately. Places and populations already socio-economically vulnerable are set to bear the brunt of the global heating world.

In the Indian context, recent research demonstrates that 75 per cent of Indian districts are vulnerable to extreme climate events. India’s performance at international climate negotiations suggests it is well aware of the consequences of climate change.

During the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris (COP21), the Indian government pledged to generate about 40 per cent of electricity from non-fossil sources by 2030. However, despite talks of renewable energy and the need for an energy transition, coal is on the rise in India and it is in the process of deepening its ties to fossil energy carriers rather than moving away from this type of energy use.

India is now on the path to extract one billion tonnes of coal annually by 2023-24. Already, auctions for coal mining concessions to private companies have been launched for 41 coal blocks in the country, including in regions of rich biodiversity and ancient forests inhabited by indigenous communities. This is in addition to further plans to auction another 55 concessions for new coal mines and expanding at least 193 current mines in the next five years.

In 2017, India was the second largest producer and importer of coal in the world.

Coal is needed, the argument goes, for development: the expansion of industries and services for economic growth and employment, improved access to electricity, and clean cooking fuel for those considered to be “energy poor” — even though the largest and fastest-growing consumer of Indian electricity is industry at approximately 40 per cent, compared to less than 25 per cent for households (with vast inequalities within household consumption).

This was the rationale behind the decision for commercial auctions for the coal mining of 41 blocks earlier this year. During the launch, several benefits, such as the creation of 2.8 lakhs jobs and the generation of ₹20,000-crore in revenues, were listed.

However, a Right to Information (RTI) seeking the reports or calculations based upon which these data were generated by author and energy researcher Sandeep Pai was initially responded to with no data to back the claim. Upon further questioning, he received supplementary information not through official communication, but on Twitter. This shows how the claims for employment and revenue generation are made without a concrete methodology, and, thus, can be easily disputed.

Social, environmental costs

At the same time, what can’t be disputed is the enormous social and environmental cost that the entire supply chain of coal generates. From extraction to transportation and combustion, coal is a contested resource and a commodity that does not address India’s interlinked socio-ecological challenges of poverty (both economic and energetic) and unemployment, environmental degradation, and the climate crisis.

Coal produced to support overall economic growth generates environmental injustices and is inherently linked to land dispossession, appropriation of livelihoods, and water and air pollution. For populations living around coal-fired power plants, premature mortality ranges from 80,000 to 115,000 per year. Coal mine workers and communities around coal mines face many adverse diseases, prominent among them pneumoconiosis (commonly known as black lung disease) due to the inhalation of coal dust, as well as diseases due to polluted drinking water.

As a result, coal is a heavily contested resource, the subject of protests and conflicts across the country. These conflicts are a part of a broader environmental justice movement in India, claiming autonomy and socio-ecological well-being in the face of the country’s growth trajectory without adequately addressing concerns for the people and the planet.

Many of these protests against coal last for decades. One such conflict, in Jharkhand’s Hazaribagh district, has been ongoing since 2004, due to its adverse impacts not only on its biodiverse forests and agricultural land but also the prehistoric megaliths discovered in the region.

Local villagers, many of them Adivasis, organised to protest the land appropriation for the sake of mining.

Since 2004, the Committee for the Struggle to Save Karanpura has been protecting farmland against India’s largest coal company’s (NTPC Limited) coal mining ambitions, organising a number of marches and demonstrations. Amidst protests, and with heavy security, however, mining commenced on May 17, 2016 in the region. Other recent protests include movements against turning Goa into a coal hub, which has garnered much media attention.

Earlier this year, the movement to stop coal mining in the Dehing Patkai wildlife sanctuary in Assam also saw active online mobilisation amidst the Covid-19 crisis.

Coal-phase out

For India to remain true to its climate goals and mitigate the intense effects of climate change in the country, a true coal phase-out is urgently needed. Such a phase-out, however, has to involve two things that are absent from the government’s current plan.

First, the government must leave the “coal in the hole,” halt extraction even while it is still considered “economically viable,” and end India’s tryst with coal.

Second, a tremendous joint endeavour of people, government, and businesses are needed to transform the energy system not only from one based on fossil fuels and nuclear energy to one based on renewables, but also from a heavily capitalised, centralised system to one that is locally controllable with decentralised energy provisioning.

The expansion of the Indian coal complex is troubling because of the present and expected contribution to the climate crisis. The threat to human livelihoods and human lives is devastating, which is why we see such fierce resistance from locals protesting this expansion. But what is so violently enforced in all these cases is the dominance of the interests of powerful actors over the local populations.

As temperatures continue to rise, and heat waves and air pollution continue to plague India’s citizens, the country has the ability to move to more sustainable forms of energy and away from the fossil system, a system which is neither sustainable nor just.

The writer is with the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology, Autonomous University of Barcelona. . This article is by special arrangement with the Centre for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.