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Why phasing out coal is a challenge for India

Coal powers 70 percent of the electricity grid and provides jobs to at least 30,000 people, who fear they have no future without the fuel

A worker pushes his bicycle through a road covered with coal dust near an open cast coal mining area at Singrauli in Madhya Pradesh. (AFP)

Thick grey dust hangs in the air and vast chasms are gouged into the land in the coal hub of Singrauli in Madhya Pradesh, where giant machines scoop up coal to power the country's growth while worsening its pollution blight.

The open-cast mines of Singrauli epitomise the economic and environmental dilemma faced by India, which led the opposition to phasing out coal at this month's COP26 climate summit in Glasgow. India's resistance is driven by its desire to distribute the benefits of development more widely among its 1.3 billion people.

Also read: What will it take for India to show more climate ambition

In Singrauli, home to more than a dozen mines and coal-fired power stations, dark soot covers trees, houses, cars and even cows. Sticky sludge lines the roads, while trucks, trains and ropeway cars carry huge mounds of coal.

Residents have little choice but to breathe in the acrid air that stings the eyes and throats. "Our air, water and in fact the entire environment is heavily polluted," said Sanjay Namdev, a labour union activist, as cranes and dumpers whirred behind him at a sprawling coal yard. "But forget phasing out, you cannot even phase down coal in a country like India," he told AFP. "Millions of people depend on coal for cheap electricity and I don't see that stopping ever."

Coal consumption in India has doubled in the last decade -- only China burns more -- and the fuel powers 70 percent of the country's electricity grid. Prime Minister Narendra Modi last month announced India would aim to be carbon-neutral by 2070 -- a decade after China and 20 years after the world's other big emitters. The government argues that although the country is the world's third-largest emitter in total, its per capita emissions are far lower than the American average.

Around 30,000 people are employed in the Singrauli mines, with thousands more working as casual labourers. They fear they have no future without coal, even as climate change brings them hotter summers and heavy unseasonal rains.

"You can see how bad the pollution situation is here. I know it is bad for my health but what will I do if the coal mines shut down? How will I feed my children?" said mineworker Vinod Kumar, 31.

Power lines emanating from a coal-fired thermal plant in Singrauli, Madhya Pradesh. Coal powers 70 percent of India's electricity grid.
Power lines emanating from a coal-fired thermal plant in Singrauli, Madhya Pradesh. Coal powers 70 percent of India's electricity grid. (AFP)

Northern Coalfields, a state-run mining firm, owns over 80 percent of the coal assets in Singrauli, producing 130 million tonnes of the fuel annually. "We want to make coal dispatch completely eco-friendly," said company spokesman Ram Vijay Singh. "We also hold free camps every year to screen health problems among the locals."

But activists say such piecemeal measures serve no real purpose. "There are some machines and techniques that can cut down the pollution but the companies are not serious about these," said Namdev. "There are so many anti-pollution guidelines but these are flouted with impunity. All they are concerned about is making quick profits."

Across India, more than 13 million people are employed in coal mining and related sectors, according to Harjeet Singh of the Fossil Fuel Non-proliferation Treaty Initiative, a campaign group. "An abrupt coal phase-out in India may lead to economic disruption," he said. "In a country where a large population depends on coal for their income and energy, we must ensure social justice in the shift towards a fossil fuel-free future."

Also read: What was achieved at the COP26 climate summit?


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