Coal miners in Singrauli. Photo courtesy: Joe Athialy/Flickr

An unprecedented and prolonged heatwave is sweeping across the Indian subcontinent. As we thoughtlessly reach out to our fans and air conditioners to keep ourselves cool, it is essential that we remember coal miners who are slogging through impossible, even inhumane, conditions to keep the energy supplied to us.

May 4th marks Coal Miners Day, a day to commemorate their incredible contributions to the nation’s economy, and our common welfare. It is a time to poignantly remember their sacrifices, in which scores have perished. It is when we must honour their accomplishments in nation-building. Unmindful of our acknowledgement they work in the heat and dust risking their lives every day, so we can be comfortable and the nation’s economic engine running.

It is also time for us to reflect on the implications of the country committing to ‘Net-Zero’ commitments by 2070, as was made at Glasgow by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during COP 26.  There is aggressive promotion of renewable energy everywhere, particularly of solar and wind, and at mega scales that demand extensive transformation of land use.  Large extents of farming and pastoral lands, commons, and so-called ‘degraded lands’ are being taken away for these megaprojects.  Considering which, it is a day to reflect, interrogate and acknowledge what ‘Just Transition’ away from coal will entail. And to ask what is truly just.

A visit to coal mines reveals the extensive social, cultural, environmental and ecological destruction. The status of coal workers, their working and living conditions, is abysmal.  The condition of coal miners of India today is akin to what renowned English writer Charles Dickens described in his novels in the 18th century. As one drives past villages affected by coal mining, the landscape is devoid of any agriculture, pastoral or economic activity and water bodies that have turned acidic. It is devastation all around.

An aspect of India’s coal mines is that it is predominantly in Adivasi lands.  Traditionally they are a people who lived off the commons, loved the earth, did not think of owning her as property, and so when it came to be discovered that below their feet is coal, it was brutal of colonial empires to dispossess them and turn them into slaves to dig out the coal.  That situation has not changed to this day, even after unprecedented legal efforts, such as with the Forest Rights Act 2006, to help secure their rights and ensure historical injustices done to them is righted.  Yet, everywhere we go, we find coal mines digging out Adivasis land, livelihoods and homes. While most are displaced and forced to labour on low skilled jobs in cities and industries as ‘informal labour’, some are forced to work in the mines. Despite the many protests forests continue to be accorded permits to dig the coal lying beneath them.

Of the villages that remain in and around coal mines, living is difficult. There are no sources of water close by, and villagers are forced to buy water at steep rates for domestic needs.  Besides the lack of water, which makes normal living excruciatingly difficult, economic activities such as agriculture and livestock rearing are rendered impossible;  the bare survival of villagers is made extraordinarily difficult.

The settlements of coal workers are an appalling site in almost every coal mine across India. There is very little provisioning for a decent living. Often these settlements are constantly threatened by subsidence from underground mines, and it is not uncommon to find toxic fumes rising through cracks in the flooring and fires as well. Rehabilitation habitually involves herding them into equally poor quality housing, even dilapidated or abandoned quarters that lack the most basic amenities for living: such as water and sanitation. The companies that exploit their labour, meanwhile, laugh all the way to the bank, and the owners are extraordinarily rich and getting richer by the day.

The recklessness with which coal mining takes place, destabilises the entire region for a very long time.  In many instances, intensive blasting and earth-moving have endangered life, and livelihoods are disrupted irreparably.  In and around a coal mine it is difficult to find a house that is not structurally damaged, or where dust is not settling on everything there is, even food. It is even worse when mining overburden is dumped around the settlements; when dry they blow the dust all over, destroying vegetation and human condition.  It is no wonder, therefore, that the health situation in and around coal mines is amongst the worst anywhere.

Over the last two years, the way in which the pandemic has been managed and the pandemic’s impacts itself have worsened the situation of coal workers fundamentally: many are in a miserable state as the pandemic left them unemployed. This even as some coal miners have been demanding their arrears and job security, instead they were forced to go on leave without pay during the pandemic.  And then simply sacked.  In general, they are worse off today than they were before the pandemic. Consequently, the socio-economic security of coal workers, particularly their health, is in a very poor state.  This forces many to be absent from work, then there is the burden on health expenditure which fundamentally weakens the family’s socioeconomic status, and forces them without regular income into a perpetual debt trap. Often women and children labour in scooping not just the leftover coal but also toil as families in the mines for a small price to make ends meet.

Historically, processes of economic and environmental decision making regarding siting and operations of coal mines have never been just. There has been a lack of care essentially, and this has also affected those not directly involved in coal mining: such as farmers whose lands are taken away with draconian laws or even just like that; commons which are diverted without any legal fear; without care for any risk assessment about the long term implications of the mines on people and environment; and without any regard to the future of the region that is ravaged by mines. To assist this, fraudulent public hearings compete with the absolute absence of resettlement and rehabilitation packages, and the very idea of human rights is anathema to every mining decision in the country.

With the number and extent of mining increasing frenetically across the country, the extensive damage to land and natural resources is best indicated in the massive drop in groundwater levels.  Meanwhile, in several abandoned mines, water seeps in widening fissures into canyons, and creates highly toxic and dangerous situations. Villagers who live around there with little choice, are forced to depend on such waters, risking life and limb to secure it.

Today the mining belt of India is where the poorest and the most marginalised people, predominantly Adivasis and Dalits, live.  It is not an accident. These are peoples who are nature’s gift to earth, who secured the forests, wetlands and the land sustainably for millennia, little knew that in two centuries of coal mining all of this would be ravaged, in the name of progress, and they would be left to rot.  Several social movements and trade unions have highlighted their plight and demanded corrective action.  Some, like Shankar Guha Niyogi and Fr. Stan Swamy, were brutalised and died.  In effect, the State worked with corporates overtime to ensure these voices of sanity and justice could not survive.

As a result, mining companies are getting away scot-free, operating mines with little care for the environment and even worse regard for workers’ welfare.  Rarely, if ever, do senior officials from these mining companies, be they private or public sector, visit the mines to appreciate the terrible state of affairs.  For the district and revenue administrations, the concern is to ensure there is no questioning of the state of affairs, no protest.  And if people raise grievances, there is no effort to address these gently and humanistically; there is only emphatic employment of police violence.  This state is encouraged by the extensive lack of judicial and legislative review of the state of affairs – several appeals and representations are pending without adjudication.  In fact, no State Legislature, or even the Parliament, has taken a keen interest in addressing the situation of coal workers and of communities impacted by coal mining.

In this context as the country shifts to what is projected as a low carbon future, an energy source that directly draws on the power of the sun through solar and wind energies, the future of coal workers is highly uncertain. Will ‘just transition’ take care of the needs of coal miners, their families and also the environment that has been ravaged? Or will they just be another chapter of human history that is conveniently forgotten?  The word ‘Just’ is a proactive force of reason, it indicates ethical, sensible, impartial and moral imperative to ensure right is done where wrongs are systemic. In that sense, ‘just transition’ needs to be perceived from 3 distinct dimensions: economic, social and environmental.  India is very far from approaching any of these dimensions, and an effort to do this is sorely missing now.

Last year the Ministry of Coal issued a statement in which it promised to repurpose closed mines and focus on socio-economic rehabilitation of the region with financial support from the World Bank;  up to 1 billion U.S Dollars was committed and plans are afoot to set up a ‘Special Purpose Entity’ to implement the efforts. The time estimated for this project is eight years with various alternatives envisaged: cottage industries, tourism development around religious places and waterfalls, and also an exploration of natural caves and abandoned coal mines.

An important factor to be borne in mind is that these are people and communities who are extremely poor and have been displaced and stripped of their agrarian, pastoral and forest-dependent lives and livelihoods once before. They probably can never go back to these livelihoods as the land may not be congenial for it post-mining. The literacy, skill level, health and other indicators have been extremely low. Now to transform the landscape and its people and especially re-orient them to a new kind of economy that the government and the world bank are imagining for them with new skills is a huge task and not as easy as on paper.  Interestingly, there is nothing about restoring the region so farming and pastoral activities can be revived, which the local communities still recall and want to return to.

Alongside renewable energy projects are promoted on the same methods that coal mines have been for centuries:  there is a widespread displacement of local communities, and there is no compensation for the livelihoods lost, just as it has been with coal mining projects. Here too predominantly agrarian and pastoral communities who have no other skills are forced suddenly to find ways to live and sustain families without any skills, and without any support from the State, and from private corporations who fundamentally benefit from access to land.

An important factor is that coal mines are spread across central and eastern belts. Renewable energy development is across the south and western regions of the country. If this process of energy development were to continue, the country may soon be in a situation where millions will be without jobs and without land to rely on for their livelihoods, and nowhere to go. How just is any of this? The absurdity of it all is beyond scary.

Considering this dire situation, it is now extremely important, more than ever before, to bring together coal miners, academicians, civil society, social movements, trade unions, local governments and local impacted communities together to reimagine the future. Together there is a need to examine how the scarred landscape can be rejuvenated, how the economy can be rebuilt, and sustainably, how to re-energise social structures and ensure social stability. Coal miners are mostly men.  But women bear the burden of sustaining families and ensuring their survival in the harsh landscapes. There is absolutely no attention and care to women’s needs, and their critical (and silenced) role in the economy, and their well-being.

Also to not be missed is that laws and policies that govern land are a crucial factor in determining sustainable futures and just alternatives. Today’s land policies are supportive of extractive development, and they need quick reform to ensure land development is sustainable from an inter-generational perspective. Yet it is highly disconcerting that several reforms in land laws, which are being undertaken by State Governments, are skewed in favour of mining corporations and industries, not human futures and the environment. Local communities who were masters of the land are being reduced to destitutes. In this context, planning ‘just transitions’ demand a holistic and case sensitive approach, in which every voice has to be heard. There are no techno-fixes that can remedy the crisis. That said, there is quite an active chance to turn abandoned, closed and non-functioning mines into solar parks, and that by employing coal miners and local communities who are now displaced by renewable energy projects. Caution: a one size fits all approach must not at all be the path. This transition demands humanistic imagination.

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