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Indian coal hub juggles need for jobs with hope for greener future

A woman stands on top of a supply truck as workers unload coal from a supply truck at a yard on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, India October 12, 2021. REUTERS/Amit Dave

Workers unload coal from a supply truck at a yard on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, India October 12, 2021. REUTERS/Amit Dave

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A coal-rich district in eastern India is working on green energy transition plan even as new mines open and coal production rises.

  • New mines opening to meet India's growing energy needs
  • Young people in coal hubs trained in mining skills
  • Mining boom risks poor preparedness for future beyond coal

MUMBAI - Dwarka Prasad, 24, believes he is on the cusp of landing his dream role driving a dumper truck at a coal mine in eastern India - although he wonders if it will be a job for life.

Prasad hopes that his participation in a first-of-its-kind training programme this year will help him to get a well-paying job at one of the new mines in Odisha state's Angul district that are set to open to meet India's ever-growing energy needs.

He was among 150 people aged 18-35 in Angul - a coal hub for seven decades - who qualified for the scheme to provide local people with skills to work in the mining industry - even as the district starts considering a greener and cleaner future.

Of these, 70 trainees have been placed in mining-related jobs - from dumper truck operators to electricians and welders.

"I have seen coal since childhood," Prasad said. "My father drove big excavators in mines and I have found work already to drive trucks to transport coal, but I hope to bag a job for driving a dumper in a mining area as it pays more."

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He currently earns 24,000 rupees ($302) a month transporting coal but is sure that will rise to 35,000 rupees working at one of the 50 new mines set to be auctioned in Angul, of which five are due to be opened by 2023, according to local officials.

"Coal will end - I read about it. But for now, this is right for me. I have to feed myself and my family," Prasad told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

Communities in India's coal-mining hubs such as Angul face a conundrum: the climate-heating fossil fuel offers job prospects, and local economies depend on these workers' incomes, yet there is resentment over the impact on groundwater, farms and forests.

Furthermore, many locals lack the skills needed for the best-paid roles and end up doing odd jobs for a daily wage while mining companies bring in trained workers from other parts of India.

Angul is trying to bridge that gap with a programme that trains its young people in skills for mining.

Yet at the same time, the district - one of India's top coal-producing areas - is surveying communities to learn about their aspirations when coal is phased out and the mines are eventually shut down, as well as speaking to environmental experts, officials said.

That comes as India has approved new targets to boost clean energy, create more green jobs and cut carbon emissions, in line with global climate goals.

States are ramping up renewables capacity with private firms investing millions in solar and wind projects, aimed at a 500GW capacity goal by 2030 India has set itself.

But, in coal hubs, discussions on how to shift away from fossil fuels in a way that allows everyone to benefit have barely begun.

Srestha Banerjee, who works for the non-profit International Forum for Environment Sustainability and Technology (iFOREST), said that while Angul has yet to develop a "just transition" plan like some other mining hubs, there was growing recognition of the need to do so.

"There is huge enthusiasm to support a transition as they don't see an immediate threat to coal," she said.

"The economy will grow and they have 20 years to plan it."

Labourers work at a coal stockyard in East Jaintia Hills in Meghalaya, India, September 16, 2015. REUTERS/Krishna N. Das

Labourers work at a coal stockyard in East Jaintia Hills in Meghalaya, India, September 16, 2015. REUTERS/Krishna N. Das

Labourers work at a coal stockyard in East Jaintia Hills in Meghalaya, India, September 16, 2015. REUTERS/Krishna N. Das

'Tightrope walk'

Coal mines currently provide about 725,000 direct jobs and many more indirect jobs in India, and along with lignite mines, account for about a fifth of the nearly 270,000 core roles the mining sector is estimated to create by 2025, research shows.

Many of these new jobs will be in Angul, where opportunities in mining are set to expand through to 2040 as the area boosts its coal production capacity, a recent iFOREST report said.

But it also warned that 75% of Angul's new coal mines risk becoming obsolete by 2050 if India moves towards net-zero emissions by phasing out coal through efforts to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius under the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Angul's administrative head, Siddhartha Shankar Swain, said the area was moving into a phase of deep coal production, but added that when a new mine opens "it comes with a closure date".

"It is not just about afforestation or how to close mines safely, but about people involved in the mining sector, their social security," he said, adding that current considerations include how to repurpose the land and expand solar electrification.

The district is consulting with technical experts in water table management and the environmentally friendly restoration of closed mines too.

"Coal is expanding here and we are looking at just transition," Swain added. "It is a tightrope walk, but both are the need of the hour: we need coal for energy sufficiency and a just transition plan for the future."

Entrepreneurs, meanwhile, have been invited to set up businesses to process food and manage plastic and textile waste, tapping a social fund created with royalties from mining companies - which has been used to provide the skills training.

Set up in 600 districts across 21 states, the district mineral funds - which have more than 500 billion rupees for projects ranging from education to sustainable work in places impacted by mining - have been poorly utilised, campaigners say.

In Angul, the fund has been used for the first time to train people such as Prasad from communities that have been affected by the mining industry - be it pollution or having to move home.

Another coal hub, Ramgarh in Jharkhand state which is experiencing a slowdown in its coal sector is planning cottage industries and training people in apparel-making and pottery.

But there are few takers for these courses, said Santosh Patnaik, who manages programmes aimed at securing a just transition for the non-profit Climate Action Network South Asia.

"As long as coal is there, it will be difficult for other industries to start in these regions," said Patnaik, who travelled to Ramgarh recently.

A worker carries coal in a basket in a industrial area in Mumbai, India May 31, 2017. REUTERS/Shailesh Andrade

A worker carries coal in a basket in a industrial area in Mumbai, India May 31, 2017. REUTERS/Shailesh Andrade

A worker carries coal in a basket in a industrial area in Mumbai, India May 31, 2017. REUTERS/Shailesh Andrade

Discussions v reality

Meetings are being held in India with researchers, bringing coal companies and labour unions together to discuss the impact of mine closures on workers and local economies.

The federal coal ministry has included a socially fair shift away from coal in its mission plan for this financial year.

But these talks come as India is opening new mines and reopening old ones, targeting production of 900 million tonnes this financial year, up from 780 million tonnes last year.

That makes planning for a green and fair transition challenging in districts set for a bounty of coal employment, researchers said.

Surveys in Angul showed mining remains the preferred bet for local people, said Stalin Nayak, founder of non-profit PanTISS, which works with mining-affected communities in eastern India and runs the training programme in Angul that helped Prasad.

"They are most interested in getting skilled in operating heavy equipment as it fetches the best salary in coal mines," he said. "Coal is a reality for them - renewable energy a dream."

Sanjay Sharma, CEO of the Skill Sector Council for Mining, an autonomous government body, said locals were reluctant to move to other states for work and wanted jobs close to home.

"Those who are hungry today need work today. They are not thinking of what happens 15 years later," he said.

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