East and west: The parallel worlds of India’s coal and renewable sectors

  • India over the past few years has pushed for rapid adoption of renewable power, mainly solar. Due to factors such as the non-availability of appropriate land and lack of political will, renewable power right now is concentrated mostly in western and southern India.
  • Along with the push for renewable power, India continues to boost coal production. This means six states in central and eastern India, which have 90 percent of India’s coal reserves, may not see a just transition to clean power.
  • Experts working in the renewable power sector and those working with communities point out that the livelihood ecosystem driven by coal mining-based jobs is a major hindrance in the transition to clean energy.

The rapid adoption of renewable power has been the top agenda of the Indian government over the last few years but it has not been at the cost of fossil fuels. This push for increasing energy installation and consumption – both renewable and fossil fuel – has seen one part of India being dominated by renewable power while another continues to face an increased push for coal to satiate the thermal power-based thirst.

India’s present installed power capacity (till June 30, 2020) is 371 gigawatts (GW) and of that coal and lignite, which is spread across India, account for 205.4 GW while renewable power, mainly solar and wind, is about 87.66 GW. Of the total 87.66 GW, the total installed solar capacity is 35.12 GW and wind’s share is 37.82 GW, while the rest is divided among small hydropower, biomass-based power and waste to energy-based power.

Source wise breakup of India's installed power capacity. Data from Central Electricity Authority (CEA), chart by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.
Source wise breakup of India’s installed power capacity. Data from Central Electricity Authority (CEA), chart by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

Now, most of the renewable power, solar and wind, is spread across western and southern states. As per the data linked above, of the 87.66 GW installed renewable power capacity, the western region alone has 42.5 GW while the southern region has 26.23 GW. This means 78 percent of India’s total renewable power capacity is in these two regions while the remaining is spread across northern, eastern, northeastern regions and islands. A quick look reveals that Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu alone are responsible for 60 percent of the country’s renewable power. 

India’s rapid adoption of renewable power and continued thrust has come since the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government came into power in 2014. In June 2015, the central government increased the target for India’s solar power programme from 20 GW to 100 GW and subsequently before the Paris Climate Summit in December 2015 it announced a plan to install 175 GW of renewable power by 2022. The ambitious target has resulted in the country’s installed renewable power capacity doubling from 38.82 GW in December 2015 to 87.66 GW in June 2016.

Vinay Rustagi, who is Managing Director of Bridge to India (BTI), a renewable power consultancy, explained the reason behind the concentration of renewable power in these states: Rajasthan, Gujarat and to some extent Maharashtra, and southern states have the best renewable resources.

“Most renewable projects are located in these states because the cost of renewable power here is lower in comparison to states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. If eastern states like Bihar want renewable power it is cheaper for them to procure it from projects in Rajasthan and Gujarat,” Rustagi told Mongabay-India.

He emphasised that another reason for the slow growth of renewable power in states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal or agriculture-led states such as Punjab and Haryana is the unavailability of land. “The lack of easy availability of renewable resources and land together are the main hindrances in the growth of renewable energy in this region. Going ahead even though renewable power penetration will increase in north and northeastern India, it will continue to be concentrated in western and southern India,” said Rustagi.

Read more: India’s mining sector: Present is tense and future could be imperfect

Renewable progress doesn’t mean a backseat for coal

This concentration of renewable power in a few states doesn’t mean that coal mining in the six states of central and eastern India (Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Telangana), has slowed down or taken a backseat.

Out of India’s total estimated coal reserves of 319.02 billion tonnes, over 301 billion tonnes (over 94 percent of total) is in these six states alone. Coal continues to be the mainstay of India’s power mix, contributing to more than 50 percent of it. With its policies, the national government also makes it clear that this will remain the scenario at least for several years even as the emphasis on renewable grows.

India’s renewable energy minister R.K. Singh recently said that India is looking at an estimated 450 GW of renewable installed capacity by 2030, which will be around 60 percent of  India’s total installed capacity. However, at the same time, India is pushing for an increase in coal mining as well to cut down coal imports and become self-sufficient in it. The government, in fact, in June had put up for auction 41 coal blocks for commercial mining. This is also considered a step to boost the sluggish Indian economy, which was already slowing down before Covid-19 but suffered a serious jolt due to the pandemic.

In such a case, the increase in coal mining means these six states will continue to witness heavy coal mining activity which will only increase. This may translate into an increase in land conflicts as communities, especially tribal people and forest dwellers, would not like to give up their lands for mining. It will also mean that people living in and around such mining hotspots will face serious ill-effects of mining and degradation of the environment due to the axing of millions of trees and water pollution.

Data from Central Electricity Authority (CEA), chart by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

“The government does not seem to be going slow on coal,” said BTI’s Vinay Rustagi. “We don’t see any abatement in coal consumption despite issues plaguing the communities in coal-rich areas. The government is keen on using power as a means to improve social and economic indicators and provide a livelihood to people. The government is keen for an increase in per capita power consumption and within that an increase in the share of renewable power. But coal still has a very important role particularly because there are no viable alternate sources.”

Gopinath Ghosh of Ranchi-based Bindrai Institute for Research Study and Action (BIRSA), who has been working on issues related to mining for nearly 30 years, said that when the world is moving towards renewable power, the people of Jharkhand continue to face mining pressure and that is only increasing.

“What can tell more about the apathy of the curse of coal is that a power plant is being made in Jharkhand for supplying power to Bangladesh. But it is the people of Jharkhand who will face the environmental and displacement issues of this project. Over the years, we have seen how hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced from their land for mining projects,” Ghosh told Mongabay-India.

He said the government’s push for commercial mining now is expected to further increase this displacement. “Communities will be displaced for mining projects, forests will be destroyed and rivers will be polluted and there will be no respite for people. The people of the state have been demanding renewable power projects but neither the state government nor the central government is interested in that. Their eyes are focused on the mineral wealth of the state without caring for the people. The only transition that we would witness is the loss of our natural wealth, land and our homes. The clean energy transition is not in the fate of people of Jharkhand,” said Ghosh.

The question about a simultaneous push for coal and renewable energy was raised in India’s parliament in March 2020 as well when a member, D. Kupendra Reddy, had asked whether India is close to halfway towards meeting the 2022 target of installing 175 GW renewable energy and is simultaneously setting up coal-powered plants of over 100 GW capacity, the pollution from which will hinder its Paris Agreement goals. 

Replying to this query, Indian government’s Minister of State in the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change Babul Supriyo had said, that “simultaneous setting up of coal power plants of over 100 GW capacity is not likely to hinder the Paris Agreement goals.” Supriyo represents Asansol constituency (in West Bengal) in India’s parliament which is a hotspot for coal mining and is a highly polluted area.

Ravi Shekhar, who is a campaign strategist with The Climate Agenda, said that “what is noteworthy is that in some parts of northern and eastern India renewable power is slowly making entry and governments are focusing on it.” 

“For instance, the Uttar Pradesh government has announced several measures in the past few months to increase solar power installation. However, the reality is that it is not a transition from coal to solar and instead both coal and solar are increasing. And this is worrying because until the transition to clean power comes into effect, coal mining hotbeds like Singrauli and its people may never see a greener tomorrow.”

Read more: [Video] Is mining in India ‘just’ for the environment and communities?

Coal mining based jobs another major factor

Another major factor that impacts a transition from coal that is just for both the environment and communities is coal mining based jobs. Rakesh Kamal, an independent climate negotiations expert and host of the podcast, Climate Emergency, stressed that there are several factors that are behind slow clean energy transition in the east and central India.

“One of the major reasons is the strong mining lobby which has built a huge ecosystem around the mining business and doesn’t want the transition,” Kamal told-Mongabay-India while emphasising on livelihood issues as well. 

He further said that another point to be noted is that there is a huge focus on skilling new people for renewable but not reskilling those already involved in coal mining. “I feel that even if the states in central and eastern India are not able to find land for huge solar parks they should at least push for rooftop solar but even that has not seen the proper government support,” Kamal said.

Echoing similar views, V.S. Krishna of the Human Rights Forum, explained that in the north Telangana region, where the Singareni Collieries Company Limited is active in coal mining from decades, people are “heavily dependent on the coal mining ecosystem as it is connected with their livelihood.”

“What is noteworthy is that in this region, underground mining has been taking place from decades and people are largely okay with it. But over the last 20 years, the company is now focusing on opencast mining and that is what has faced stiff resistance from locals,” Krishna told Mongabay-India.

Arguments about the huge clout of coal mining-based jobs and lack of political will is a substantial one. A study released earlier this year highlighted that India would need to scale up its current solar capacity to nearly 30 times, about 1,000 GW, to transition about half a million people directly working in coal mines. The other people, whose livelihood is indirectly connected to mining, means a significant political will is required both at the state and central level. 

Sandeep Pai, an energy transition researcher at The University of British Columbia and lead author of this study, said coal mining and power plant industries directly employ close to 600,000 people in India. “This is a conservative estimate as no one really knows how many contractor workers are employed by coal companies like Coal India. Aside from these direct jobs, for every direct job, at least three to six jobs are supported indirectly by coal companies in sectors like transportation and allied industries. When you add direct and indirect workers along with their three to four family members who depend on the worker’s income, you suddenly have millions of people directly relying on coal for living. Most of these jobs are regionally concentrated in the 5-6 states (Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Telangana) which makes it significant,” Pai told Mongabay-India.

Renewable power, mainly solar, has a countrywide potential

According to an analysis by independent researcher Ankita Das, who has compared the nature of solar power jobs in India with coal jobs, workers transitioning between the two sectors would potentially have to move to different states or regions. The research, pursued with Lund University, showed that even though currently the proportion of solar jobs is very low compared to coal jobs they are projected to grow exponentially to rival the number of coal jobs by 2040.

“… while there is projected growth in both sectors, with solar growing more than coal, the two industries grow independently of each other and do not compete with each other at least until 2040,” writes Das in her thesis.

As per the 2018 National Electricity Plan released by India’s Central Electricity Authority, the countrywide solar power potential of 748.99 GW but the thesis points out that  “cursory glance of the reported numbers revealed that not all the states with highest geographical solar power potential have the largest 2022 deployment targets.” 

“One of the major findings of my research was that solar power jobs are not going to take away any jobs from fossil fuels – at least till 2040. In fact, to transition to clean energy jobs, workers involved in coal mining will require extensive reskilling and may need to change location. For that, one of the recommendations in my research was that the government places solar module manufacturing units in coal-rich states so that workers engaged in the coal sector get an avenue for transition,” researcher Ankita Das told Mongabay-India. She also noted that the government also needs to improve its reporting framework as she cited the example of the National Electricity Plan where Punjab’s target for solar power is 70 percent more than the estimated potential.


Banner image: A rooftop solar system in Odisha. Photo by Abbie Trayler-Smith/Panos Pictures/Department for International Development/Flickr.

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