India’s coal hub juggles the need for jobs with hope for a greener future

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A coal-rich district in eastern India is working on a plan to transition to green energy even as new mines open and coal production increases

  • New mines open to meet India’s growing energy needs
  • Youth from coal hubs trained in mining skills
  • The mining boom risks ill-preparing the future beyond coal

By Roli Srivastava

MUMBAI, September 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Dwarka Prasad, 24, thinks he’s about to land his dream role driving a dump truck in a coal mine in eastern India – although he wonders if it will be a job for life.

Prasad hopes his participation in a one-of-a-kind training program this year will help him land a well-paying job at one of the new mines in Angul district, Odisha state, which are set to open for respond to India’s steady growth. energy needs.

He was among 150 people aged between 18 and 35 in Angul – a coal hub for seven decades – who qualified for the scheme to provide local people with the skills to work in the mining industry – even then that the district begins to envision a greener and cleaner future.

Among them, 70 trainees have been placed in mining-related jobs – from dump truck drivers to electricians and welders.

“I’ve seen coal since I was a kid,” Prasad said. “My father drove big diggers in the mines and I have already found work driving trucks to transport coal, but I hope to get a job driving a dumper in a mining area because it pays more.”

He currently earns 24,000 rupees ($302) a month hauling coal, but is sure that will rise to 35,000 rupees working in one of the 50 new mines to be auctioned at Angul, five of which are expected to be open by 2023, according to locals. officials.

“Coal will go away – I’ve read about it. But for now it’s good for me. I have to feed myself and my family,” Prasad told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

Communities in Indian coal centers such as Angul face a conundrum: the climate-warming fossil fuel provides job opportunities and local economies depend on the earnings of these workers, but the impact on groundwater, farms and forests arouses resentment.

Also, many locals lack the skills needed for the higher paying roles and end up doing odd jobs for daily wages while mining companies bring in skilled workers from other parts of India.

Angul is trying to bridge that gap with a program that trains its young people in mining skills.

Yet at the same time, the district – one of India’s major coal-producing regions – surveys communities to find out their aspirations when coal is phased out and mines are eventually closed, as well as interviews with environmental experts, officials said.

This comes as India approved new targets to boost clean energy, create more green jobs and reduce carbon emissions, in line with global climate goals.

States are ramping up renewable energy capacity with private companies investing millions in solar and wind projects, aiming for a 500GW capacity target by 2030 that India has set itself.

But, in coal hubs, discussions about how to move away from fossil fuels in a way that allows everyone to benefit have only just begun.

Srestha Banerjee, who works for the non-profit International Forum for Environmental Sustainability and Technology (iFOREST), said that although Angul has not yet developed a “just transition” plan like some others mining centres, there was a growing recognition of the need to do so.

“There’s huge enthusiasm to support a transition because they don’t see an immediate threat to coal,” she said.

“The economy is going to grow and they have 20 years to plan for it.”

‘SHOOTING ON THE ROPE’

Coal mining currently provides around 725,000 direct jobs and many other indirect jobs in India, and together with lignite mining, accounts for around a fifth of the nearly 270,000 lead roles the mining sector is expected to create by 2025, according to researches.

Many of these new jobs will be in Angul, where opportunities in the mining sector are expected to grow through 2040 as the region increases its coal production capacity, according to a recent iFOREST report.

But he also warned that 75% of new coal mines in Angul risk becoming obsolete by 2050 if India moves towards net zero emissions by phasing out coal in an effort to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius under the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Angul’s chief administrative officer, Siddhartha Shankar Swain, said the region was entering a phase of deep coal production, but added that when a new mine opens “it comes with a closing date”.

“It’s not just about reforestation or how to close mines safely, but about people involved in mining, their social security,” he said, adding that current considerations include how to reallocate land and expand solar electrification.

The district also consults with technical experts in groundwater management and ecological restoration of closed mines.

“Coal is growing here and we’re looking at a just transition,” Swain added. “It’s a tightrope walk, but both are the need of the hour: we need coal for energy self-sufficiency and a just transition plan for the future.”

Entrepreneurs, meanwhile, were invited to set up businesses to process food and manage plastic and textile waste, tapping into a social fund created with royalties from mining companies – which was used to provide job training.

Created in 600 districts in 21 states, district mining funds – which have more than 500 billion rupees for projects ranging from education to sustainable work in places affected by mining – have been misused, according to activists.

In Angul, the fund was used for the first time to train people like Prasad from communities that have been affected by the mining industry – whether it’s pollution or having to relocate.

Another coal hub, Ramgarh in the state of Jharkhand, which is experiencing a downturn in its coal sector, is planning cottage industries and training people in garment making and pottery.

But there are few applicants for these courses, said Santosh Patnaik, who runs just transition programs for the nonprofit Climate Action Network South Asia.

“As long as there is coal, it will be difficult for other industries to start in these areas,” said Patnaik, who recently visited Ramgarh.

DISCUSSIONS V REALITY

Meetings are held in India with researchers, bringing together coal companies and unions to discuss the impact of mine closures on workers and local economies.

The Federal Ministry of Coal has included a socially equitable shift away from coal in its mission plan for this exercise.

But the talks come as India opens new mines and reopens old ones, aiming to produce 900m tonnes this fiscal year, up from 780m tonnes last year.

This makes planning for a green and just transition difficult in districts destined for an abundance of coal jobs, researchers said.

Surveys in Angul have shown that mining remains the preferred bet of local people, said Stalin Nayak, founder of the non-profit PanTISS, which works with mining-affected communities in eastern India. India and runs the training program in Angul that helped Prasad.

“They are more interested in learning skills in using heavy equipment because they bring in the best pay in the coal mines,” he said. “For them, coal is a reality, renewable energies a dream.”

Sanjay Sharma, CEO of the Skill Sector Council for Mining, an arm’s-length government body, said residents were reluctant to move to other states for work and wanted jobs close to home.

“Those who are hungry today need work today. They don’t think about what will happen 15 years later,” he said.

Related stories:

Brazil extends coal use until 2040 under new ‘just transition’ law

Global aid agreements to end coal urged to put workers first and transparency first

Coal’s stance at COP26 climate talks buys India time to transition

New financing for coal exit from developing countries requires better planning for workers

(Reporting by Roli Srivastava @Rolionaroll; Editing by Kieran Guilbert and Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world struggling to live freely or fairly. Visit http: //news.trust.org)

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