[Interview] Ajay Kumar Rastogi on leading India’s first just transition task force

Ajay Kumar Rastogi was appointed as the chairman of the Jharkhand Just Transition Task force in November 2022. Photo by Ajay Kumar Rastogi

  • Jharkhand is the largest coal-producing state in India. The state hosts around 40 percent of the country’s mineral wealth.
  • The state government constituted a Task Force for Just Transition in November 2022, to assess coal dependency in the state and make recommendations to the government and create a roadmap for a transition to cleaner energy sources.
  • Indian Forest Service (IFS) officer Ajay Kumar Rastogi who retired last year as the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) in the state is appointed as the Chairman of the Task Force.
  • In an interview with Mongabay-India, Rastogi spoke about the scale of coal dependency in Jharkhand, the need for climate finance to enable a just transition, the scope of renewables, and green jobs.

The eastern Indian state of Jharkhand holds much of India’s mineral wealth. Forty percent of India’s key minerals such as coal, iron ore, copper, bauxite, graphite, kyanite, limestone, uranium, and others are found here, according to the latest available Economic Survey of the landlocked state. Jharkhand also hosts the largest coal reserves (27.3 percent) in the country.

With the Indian government’s commitment, made at the climate change conference COP26 at Glasgow, to go net-zero by 2070, the decarbonisation of coal-bearing states such as Jharkhand, has become inevitable. However, several stakeholders in these states which are transitioning from coal to renewable sources of energy, are now concerned over the fate of the state economies which thrive on the decades-old established coal economy.

The Jharkhand government is the first Indian state to have created a dedicated task force to assess details about the dependency of the local communities on the coal economy and recommend a roadmap towards a sustainable, ‘just transition’ for the state, by the end of December 2024.

Just Transition (JT) refers to a fair and inclusive energy transition from a fossil-fuel-dominated regime towards a non-fossil-fuel one, where the welfare of the people affected by the phenomenon is taken care of.

The Jharkhand Just Transition Task Force comprises 17 institutions, including different departments of the state government. It is working on seven thematic areas – livelihood, energy transition, coal transition, electric mobility, decarbonisation of industries, climate finance and capacity building.

Indian Forest Services (IFS) officer Ajay Rastogi, who superannuated last year from the post of the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) in the state, was appointed as the chairman of this just transition task force in November 2022.

In a conversation with Mongabay-India, Rastogi shared his latest experiences on the challenges, opportunities, and way ahead for the task force which is slated to submit its report by the end of December  2024.

Mongabay: How dependent, are the people in Jharkhand, on coal?     

Ajay Kumar Rastogi: Jharkhand meets around 30 percent of India’s total coal requirement annually. Twelve out of 24 districts have operational coal mines while a new district, Dhumka, is also set to start coal mining. There are five other districts which have steel, iron and other medium-scale industries which are directly dependent on coal to operate. Therefore, 18 out of 24 districts (which is around three-fourth of the state), are directly dependent on coal.

Interactions with energy experts from these areas reveal that around 80 to 90 percent of the GDP in these districts is directly or indirectly linked to the decades-old established coal ecosystem. There are several formal workers in such industries and lakhs of informal workers dependent on this industry for their livelihood. In case of any disruption to the mining activities in such areas, the livelihoods of thousands of them face threat.

Coal being transported by railway in India. Around 30 percent of India’s total annual coal requirement is met by Jharkhand. Photo by Suyash.dwivedi/Wikimedia Commons.

Mongabay: How different are the energy transition challenges in Jharkhand compared to other coal-dependent states in India? 

Ajay Kumar Rastogi: When it comes to Jharkhand, the biggest challenge is that the coal mines are spread over larger geographical areas. Twelve districts now have coal mines in the state. But if you take the case of Odisha, the majority of coal is produced from one district, Angul alone. If you see Maharashtra, the majority of coal comes from Chandrapur. Similar is the case for Chhattisgarh. So, the impact of an energy transition is likely to be the largest in Jharkhand compared to other coal-bearing states of India.

Mongabay: What are the different sources of renewable energy for Jharkhand? And what is their potential in offsetting the impacts of the coal mine closures?

Ajay Kumar Rastogi: We are the fifth-best solar-insulated state in India. We have a forward-looking solar policy. Solar energy is a good option for the state in terms of energy security. We also have a good hydel project capacity. Biofuel is another alternative that can also be a game changer in the clean energy sector.

If we can utilise the decommissioned mined wastelands, uncultivated land, and other available areas to grow biofuel crops, it can help in providing energy security for the state. It can also aid in carbon sequestration and help in utilising several land parcels degraded by mining activities. This in turn will help in reducing air pollution.

There are also opportunities in the green hydrogen sector with the presence of hard-to-abate sectors in the state like the cement and steel sector.

Another area where the money comes from, is the forest. According to the National Forest Policy (NFP), states like Jharkhand should have 33 percent of forest cover and Jharkhand for the last 22 years has been witnessing a continuous increase in its forest area. So, carbon credit could be a source of income for the state. The Indian government has recently announced a carbon credit market. This can also play a key role in increasing the revenue in the state.

Mongabay: Jharkhand is also the state with the first state-level task force for just transition in India. How has your experience been on leading this task force?

Ajay Kumar Rastogi: Leading the first state-level task force is crucial, as people are watching us. So, we have a huge responsibility. But we are also open to learning from various practices in different states. I believe that we will come up with a well analysed and researched report during my tenure, after proper deliberations. The objective of the task force is not only to provide data but also to suggest measures to resolve the challenges such as tackling the question of the finance required for the transition and ways to diversify jobs. In the next two years, we will bring more data-backed, evidence-based solutions to pave a way for a sustainable, just transition in Jharkhand.

Mongabay: You mentioned that the task force will also evaluate the finance needed for this just transition? How equipped do you think the state is at present, to ensure a smooth supply of finances for the transition? 

Ajay Kumar Rastogi: Finance for just transition is a very important aspect. Coal-bearing states such as Jharkhand are unlikely to bear the costs with their state funds. There is also a likely dip possible in the state revenues with the anticipated closure of coal mines in the future. We will need separate climate finance for this. We can do this with the devolution of funds from the federal government, soft loans, grants, borrowings and other means. Also, as coal mines are slated to close down completely by the end of the next five decades, no government is likely to invest much money in them in the initial stages. First, we can see some funded pilot projects and based on their assessment we can scale the successful models later on. But it is sure that for such a mammoth task, public and private funds alone will not suffice.

A coal mine worker sits in a coal mine project at Bermo in Jharkhand with others. Photo by Manish Kumar/Mongabay.

Mongabay: Jharkhand and other coal-rich states also have funds made available through the District Mineral Foundation (DMF). How much can this fund help?

Ajay Kumar Rastogi: Of course, it is a source and will be looked into and the funds are likely to be utilised. However, as the coal production peaks, DMF funds will peak and with the decline of coal production, the avenues of DMF will also decline. We will need more funds. As the majority of the funds to the state comes from the devolution from the Centre, all coal-bearing states are likely to seek more funds from the federal government for Just Transition.

Mongabay: Coming to an important recommendation that the Task Force must provide – jobs – can the renewable energy sector create enough jobs to help all coal workers shift to greener jobs? What kind of skills would the coal workers need to transition? 

Ajay Kumar Rastogi: Renewable energy alone is unlikely to compensate for the scale of jobs that the whole coal ecosystem offers. Even for renewable jobs, we need to create more green jobs. We may need to revisit the curriculum of Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs) to include training on managing solar plants, batteries, electrolysers and other equipment to make the future workforce trained in full capacity to handle the newer kinds of job demands from the clean energy sector. Even the electric mobility sector in the state has the potential to create new job demands.

Apart from renewables, there is scope for tourism and other industries which can provide diversified job opportunities. We are assessing all these options and have been mandated by the government to look into these and suggest measures. We need to assess the kind of infrastructure required for boosting the new and alternate industries and also look at the likely investments required.

Read more: Jharkhand mine workers fear loss of job and social security

Mongabay: How has the progress been in the last four months since the Task Force was formed?

Ajay Kumar Rastogi: Until now we have held three large consultative meetings including national consultative meetings in New Delhi. We have consulted several sub-national, national, and international consultations which include meetings with policymakers, think-tanks, the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur. We have also held representatives from Germany where energy transition works were taken earlier. We have made six thematic areas and are finding organisations that have expertise in such areas. We have also received several Letters of Intent (LOIs) from many organisations who are keen to join the task force. Conducting meetings will not be the only work the task force will see. We will be going to several areas in coal-mining regions to do a ground assessment, undertake data collection, and find solutions well suited for the local areas.

Mongabay: How can the Task Force ensure the participation of local communities that are going to be affected by the transition?

Ajay Kumar Rastogi: As per the mandate of the Task Force we have to make district-level action plans. So, the plan is to go to the district level, talk to the elected representatives, unelected representatives, traditional leaders in tribal areas and the main stakeholders of the transition – the communities which are either going to be either victims or the beneficiaries of this transition.

Mongabay: How are the coal companies in Jharkhand preparing for energy transition?

Ajay Kumar Rastogi: They are also concerned now. There are three subsidiaries of Coal India Limited (CIL) in Jharkhand which employ thousands of mining workers. However, net zero does not mean that coal mines are going to shut down completely. It means moving towards decarbonisation. So, the coal companies are also moving towards net zero with other alternatives. CIL itself has committed to go net-zero in the next three years by committing an investment to the tune of Rs. 42,600 crores to move towards a low-emission infrastructure for coal mining and green projects. This goal be attained with more mechanised mining methods, which is likely to create a different set of jobs.

A mining worker passing through a coal mining area in Bokaro district in Jharkhand. Photo by Manish Kumar/Mongabay.

Mongabay: Are there any successful models of just transition in other countries? What can we learn from them?

Ajay Kumar Rastogi: Some case studies in countries like Germany, the United States, and Africa showed some good practices in Just Transition. Take for example, Colorado in the U.S., which made legislation on the issue. In Germany, there were a handful of people dependent on coal where the transition was planned. However, we cannot replicate such models in Jharkhand as it has a different geography and different inherent challenges. Due to differences in landforms, population and scales, we have a different set of challenges. We can of course learn from them and customise our policies with caution. We are also discussing with the governments in these countries to understand their models better. We are also bringing on board think-tanks that have international experience in just transition.

Read more: India needs to weigh options before G7 partnership on just transitions

Banner image: Ajay Kumar Rastogi was appointed as the chairman of the Jharkhand Just Transition Task force in November 2022. Photo from Ajay Kumar Rastogi.

Exit mobile version