India’s thrust on coal continues while studies highlight impact on health

  • Studies have highlighted the significant impact on health from coal-fired plants in India. The government though, continues its thrust on the coal sector alongside its pursuit of renewable energy goals.
  • In the latest budget, the government increased funds for coal exploration while cutting down the budget for conservation and safety in coal mines.
  • As the coal sector supports many other industries, creating more jobs, it is to be seen what will be the focus of the upcoming elections — industry or clean air.

The adverse impact from coal-fired power plants on public health is the highest in India globally, found a recent study. And while campaigns continue to highlight the ills of coal mines and thermal power plants, the Indian government is giving a boost to the coal sector.

In the latest budget for 2019-20, the government has allocated Rs. 6 billion (Rs. 600 crores) for “exploration of coal and lignite”, an increase of 20 percent compared to the Rs. 5 billion (Rs. 500 crores) allocated in 2018-19. Meanwhile, the fund for “conservation, safety, and infrastructure development in coal mines” has been cut by nearly 33 percent from Rs. two billion (Rs. 200 crore) in 2018-19 to Rs 1.35 billion (Rs. 135 crore) in the 2019-20 budget.

As per the budget document, these funds for exploration of coal and lignite would be used to “undertake preliminary drilling for assessing the availability of coal to meet the sizeable increase in the demand for coal and for detailed drilling in the non-Coal India Limited (CIL) coal mining blocks so that the geological reports generated may help the prospective investors in taking investment decisions regarding coal mining and reduction of time for preparation of mining plan.” The government hopes that this step would “promote private investment in the coal mining industry.”

The money allocated for conservation, safety and infrastructure development in coal mines’ according to the budget document is for “various stowing and conservation measures to stabilize the mines after extraction of coal and development of road and rail transport infrastructure in the coalfield areas.” It is also for “carrying out environmental protection measures including land reclamation and subsidence control in the coalfield areas.”

The safety and infrastructure, specifically at unregulated coal mines have recently come into focus following the deaths of coal miners in Meghalaya, an issue that is likely to feature in the upcoming elections.

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India continues to support the coal sector

Recently while highlighting its achievements and initiatives in last five year, the Indian government’s coal ministry had stressed that to “ensure energy security, reduce imports and realise the vision of 24×7 power for all, Coal India has enhanced drilling, production, and offtake of coal.”

“A 105 MT (million tonnes) increase in coal production since 2014 took almost seven years to achieve before 2013-14. Production target of Coal India is 610 MT in 2018-19. As a result of record performance, number of coal plants with critical stock is only four out of 125 (as on February 20, 2019) compared to 2/3rd coal plants with critical stock in 2014,” said the central government in a statement.

The government also emphasised that it introduced “commercial coal mining, the most ambitious reform in Coal Mining after Nationalisation in 1973” and that it would “reduce import dependency and bring energy security through assured coal supply.”

Despite knowing the impact on health, India continues to push for coal. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay.

Aishwarya Sudhir, an independent researcher working on air quality emphasised that the government needs to clarify its priorities on energy policy.

“On one hand the Central Electricity Authority sets targets for expanding coal mining but at the same time you have the power ministry’s data reflecting availability of excess power for various states on a day to day basis. This points to a lack of coherent planning between various ministries and govt departments,” Sudhir told Mongabay-India.

“How are ministries of coal and renewable power ministry coming together and looking at energy future of the country is not clear to a lot of people working in this sector. If the government cares about public health and sustainable development keeping high forest cover, it needs to find out how much there is need to mine further and if there is a need to mine further at all.  We already know that the cost we are paying in terms of air pollution and public health is quite huge. This needs to be looked urgently as well,” she added.

A December 2018 analysis by Greenpeace had stated that approximately 76,000 premature deaths could have been averted if India’s coal power plants had implemented strict emission standards.

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Even though China and the U.S. are the largest producers of coal power, it is the coal-fired power plants in India that take the highest toll in the world when it comes to health, revealed the February 2019 study.

Renewables have not impacted coal’s prospects

Coal has continued to be a thrust area for the current government while it aggressively pursues renewable power as well.

As of the end of February 2019, the coal-based power plants account for about 55 percent (191,092 MW) of India’s total installed capacity of 350,162 MW while renewable account for 21.43 percent (75,055 MW). In May 2014, when the PM Modi-led government came into power, the coal-based power stations accounted for 60 percent of India’s total installed capacity while renewable power only accounted for about 13 percent. In June 2015, India had announced to ramp up the target under its solar mission from 20,000 MW to 100,000 MW by 2022. Later that year, just before the Paris climate conference, India announced its ambitious plan to achieve 175,000 MW of renewable power by 2022.

Over the past five years, the government’s aggressive push for renewable power has also led to record low tariffs of solar (Rs. 2.44 per unit) and wind power (Rs. 2.43 per unit).

Yet, coal continues to remain at the centre stage.

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Industry or clean air – what’s going to get a boost in these elections?

In the last meeting of the cabinet committee on economic affairs (CCEA) before announcement of 2019 parliament elections held on March 7, 2019, the national government took several decisions for strengthening of the power sector including granting approval for two thermal power projects at Buxar (Bihar) and Khurja (Uttar Pradesh) at an estimated cost of Rs 215.28 billion (Rs 21,528 crore).

It also cleared the recommendations of the Group of Ministers (GoM) which were formed to “examine the specific recommendations of High-Level Empowered Committee (HLEC) constituted to address the issues of stressed thermal power projects.”

“The CCEA has approved recommendations of the GoM mainly relating to grant of linkage coal for short-term PPA (Power Purchase Agreement), allowed existing coal linkage to be used in case of termination of PPAs due to payment default by DISCOMs (distribution companies), increase in quantity of coal for special forward e-auction for power sector and coal linkage auctions to be held at regular intervals, non-lapsing of short supplies of coal,” said a statement.

Ravi Shekhar of the Varanasi-based Kisan Adivasi Visthapit Ekta Manch said the level of thrust given to coal by the government is so much that the prime minister, in his last public programme before the election commission announced elections, digitally unveiled the foundation stones of two thermal power plants – one in Bihar and another in Uttar Pradesh.

Explaining the main reason behind the government’s unrelenting support to the coal sector, Shekhar said that the coal industry does not work in isolation but is supporting many other industries.

“The government knows that if they give push to the coal industry, then all the subsidiary industries like transport will get flourished. This is why even if the government has to spend more on health to offset the harm caused by the coal sector, it is still supporting coal, because the connected sectors will flourish and provide jobs. For years to come, people in India are destined to live in polluted air,” Shekhar told Mongabay-India. Meanwhile statistics on health impacts by polluted air, which can be averted with strict controls on coal plant emissions, continue to roll in regularly.

He said that they have approached all political parties in Uttar Pradesh to support the demand for clean air and water but doesn’t believe it to be a significant election issue. “They supported our campaign and we are waiting to see if this will become a part of the manifestos of parties. Last time, when assembly elections happened in the state, the parties had promised steps on clean air but nothing has happened on it so far and Uttar Pradesh’s cities continue to feature prominently among the world’s most polluted cities,” said Shekhar.

Banner image: Studies reveal that thousands of premature deaths can be averted with strict emission standards. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay.

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