- Womens’ labour in the coal economies has been marginalised for decades, and they are not present in the formal workforce. This makes it harder for them to be part of policy discussions involving a just transition, as the country shifts to renewable energy.
- In an interview with Mongabay-India, energy and labour researcher Suravee Nayak says a just transition policy must make economic diversification for women a priority.
- Networks of women, like self-help groups, can provide women with a platform to voice their interests and increase representation, Nayak says.
- Providing women with alternative livelihoods can correct historical injustices of representation while making them active agents of a just transition.
At its Global Just Transition Dialogue earlier this year, the International Forum for Environment, Sustainability & Technology (iFOREST), a think-tank, estimated that a ‘just transition’ out of coal would cost India a minimum of $900 billion over the next 30 years. Of this, $300 billion is solely as grants and subsidies to rehabilitate affected communities. The National Foundation of India (NFI), estimates that at least two crore formal and informal coal workers will be affected by a just transition, calling it a conservative estimate.
A just transition refers to the transition of the economy as it moves from being dominated by fossil fuels to being more renewable energy based, while ensuring no communities are left behind in the process.
In 2021, India committed to phasing down coal at the climate conference COP26 in Glasgow, where it announced its ambition to achieve net-zero emissions by 2070. A just transition will be an essential component in the achievement for this goal. But the central question of who counts as an affected community, that lies at the heart of a just transition, is still open to discussion with no easy answer.
Suravee Nayak, associate fellow and an energy and labour researcher at the Centre for Policy Research, argues that a just transition policy must account for the experiences of marginal and vulnerable groups like Dalits and women, whose labour is often invisibilised. Equally important is considering how hierarchies in the coal labour market are reproduced over generations. Today, women make up only eight per cent of the workforce at Coal India Limited, the country’s largest coal producing company.
In a recent policy brief, Nayak and her colleague Ashwani Swain explain that women’s exclusion from the coal labour market has been systematic since the 1920s, when they were banned from entering the mines. Further exclusion arose from the use of heavy machinery in the opencast coal mines, neglect of women’s issues and interests by trade unions and gender discriminatory attitudes by the mining companies.
In an interview with Mongabay India, Nayak shares her thoughts on how a just transition policy must make transformative justice for women and other marginalised groups a priority in order to be meaningful.
Mongabay: You argue that in addition to estimating costs of a just transition and putting a number on the affected coal labour workforce, it is important to also consider generational dependency among communities on coal. What difference can that perspective bring to a just transition policy?
Suravee Nayak: Quantification is certainly very useful, but we should not be restricted to this exercise, because labour dependencies in the coal regions are not restricted to one generation. While most in the coalfield regions are working as formal or informal workers in the coal mines, many are engaged in other allied activities like the service sector and transportation, and all these jobs are carried forward for generations. In Talcher, Odisha, I observed the extent to which beneficiaries and their sons are dependent on coal labour and found that more than 80-90% of these households are solely dependent on coal, be it formal or informal, contractual or other allied activities. So, there are different layers to the labour dependency that we see here. If we quantify a certain number right now, by the time we actually start the implementation of a transition, there may be a chance that we might miss some people, because it’s not about this fixed generation of people that are working in coal mines but also the future, younger generations. An intergenerational lens shows us that labour dependencies are reproducing, and that we need to consider future generations so they are not overlooked.
Mongabay: In Talcher, you also found that intergenerational dependency in coal mines “intensified and expanded” existing hierarchies, especially for marginalised groups like Dalits. How so?
Suravee Nayak: There are socio-economic inequalities which exist in the coal economies. One very overarching inequality is along the lines of caste and class, and then on gender. Who gets to be a ‘formal worker’ depends on land ownership. If you are a landowner, then you will get a formal job as compensation.
A majority of Dalits are landless, or even if they are of a small minority who possess land, the land is mostly of inferior quality. Compensation policies might differ from subsidiary to subsidiary, but generally, Dalits who were landless or who had inferior quality of land could not enter into the formal workforce, as opposed to the dominant caste or privileged class groups. What happens is that they are mostly engaged in informal work, like working as daily wage earners in coal washeries or transportation, or as coal scavengers for survival. We see this across both generations – direct beneficiaries and their sons. Of course, a small percentage of Dalits, around 20 per cent in the first generation, are formal workers, but especially in the second generation, we see that more than 90 percent of sons are now either casual wage workers or coal scavengers, or both. You don’t see this pattern among dominant caste groups at all. More than 70-80 percent of their sons are either truck owners, labour contractors, service sector business owners or contractual labour.
When we talk about a just transition, we should also talk about transformation out of these inequalities, which means that the Dalit daily wage earners should not be rehabilitated to become daily wage earners in another precarious job, whether in renewables or any other industrial sector.
Mongabay: Women are especially vulnerable to being left out of a just transition because they already face barriers in entering the coal labour market. What are these barriers?
Suravee Nayak: There are four barriers that we speak of — the first and foremost being the entry barrier. As I said earlier, land ownership is a key factor to landing a formal job. Land titles majorly belong to the male members of the household, and so the compensation as a job is also given to male members, which excludes a majority of women from accessing formal jobs.
The small portion of women who are given jobs, which is less than 10 per cent, are cases where male members are unavailable. Women who do manage to enter end up in low wage jobs which are not typically termed as a coal miner. So, you would see them in the offices, in the workshop or doing blasting in the mines, but they will not be called as coal miners. The prospects of them getting promoted is also very small, and so this is basically a distribution barrier.
Third comes the gender wage gap barrier, which is 27.5% among the non-executives in one of the largest public sector coal companies. Such gaps are only apparent among the workers in the coal mines but also in executive and board of director levels.
Finally, trade unions are extremely inaccessible for women to even raise certain gender specific issues. There is no representation in the unions, which becomes a representation barrier. These barriers make women invisible and marginalised because they are not present in the formal workforce.
Mongabay: You also talk about the ‘housewifisation’ of women in the coal economy, where they are pushed to the domestic sphere. But is that something that’s peculiar to the coal sector? And if it is, then why? Some might argue that that happens with other fields also.
Suravee Nayak: The participation of women in India’s labour market is low, and these dimensions do exist in other sectors too. For instance, in agriculture, a woman carrying out agricultural activities as part of family labour is not identified as a farmer. If there is like a garment unit attached to a household in which the women work, it becomes a family unit, and it is not regarded separately as work, because that boundary between household and workspace gets blurred. But what is peculiar to the coalfield region is the kind of systematic exclusion of women after land is acquired for coal mines. Before coal mines came, women were engaged in productive activities, like agriculture, and family labour. They were actively contributing to a family’s income and livelihood. But after the coal mines come, they are excluded from those productive spheres. This pushes them to become caregivers and housewives, restricting them to household duties. Or they’re in the informal workforce.
Mongabay: How can existing networks that empower women be leveraged to increase their representation in the coal labour workforce? What about areas where those networks may not exist?
Suravee Nayak: The idea is to strengthen networks of such kinds where women are actively part of just transition policymaking and where they have a space to raise their voice. In Odisha, self-help groups (SHGs) are very active and we have suggested they be used. But this may not be there in other regions, and if they aren’t, then I suggest such networks or platforms be created. Every coal bearing state has its own political and socio-economic setting. Existing networks in each of them have to be identified. If in Odisha it’s in the form of SHGs, in other states it can be in the form of an informal association or a local NGO which brings women together.
Mongabay: What are some ways in which policymakers can ensure women’s representation is not tokenistic when coming up with a just transition policy?
Suravee Nayak: Women should not just be limited to one paragraph in discussions, reports and surveys on a just transition. Gender should not be a small component of a just transition because we can see that there is an overarching inequality, or hierarchy, that mediates gender relations in coalfield regions. We need various specialised gender-specific perspectives to understand these inequalities and then arrive at a solution. Women’s networks and associations will be extremely helpful here.
When it comes to addressing their exclusion, the conversation has to move beyond just re-skilling to generating livelihoods and economic diversification from a gendered point of view. This way, women can be made active participants in a just transition. We don’t have a clear timeline as to when exactly the transition is going to take place, but we do know that women in coal communities do not have access to dignified, decent jobs, or a dignified way of earning their livelihoods. We know that there is this existing pool of women who can be employed, so why not start an economic diversification or alternative livelihood programme now, instead of waiting for when a transition does happen, and focussing entirely on the male workforce?
Economic diversification can serve two purposes. First, it can correct the historical injustice that excluded women from the coal labour market or pushed them to precarious informal work. Second, those coal dependent households which may see job losses from the main earner can be prepared and protected from the economic shock in the future if women are already generating income from an alternative livelihood.
Banner image: (Left) Suravee Nayak, associate fellow at Centre for Policy Research. Photo by Suravee Nayak/CPR. (Right) Daily wage labourers in the Deocha-Pachami-Dewanganj-Harinsinga coal block, waiting near a stone quarry for job opportunities. Photo by Subhrajit Sen/Mongabay.