Moving away from coal: Livelihoods of Odisha’s mine workers need to be protected

At least half a million lives are associated with coal mining in Odisha

By Charudutta Panigrahi
Published: Tuesday 16 November 2021
CoP26: Just Transitioning away from coal mining need of the hour. Photo: iStock

I attended the 26th Conference of Parties (CoP26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and sensed the urgency, helplessness and laxity in approaches and preparedness by the various geographies of the world. I realised once again the utter necessity of leadership and bold decisions. 

“Coal, cars, cash and trees” is the slogan coined by United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson and this replaces “hands, face, space”, signalling our entire attention towards climate change, with the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) gradually phasing out. 

UK is soon going to ban the sale of wet wood and domestic use of coal.  Winters now have to look for other alternatives to keep the warmth and the romance of the fireplace would change its texture. It had to happen. Our actions killed our life’s romance.

Wood-burning stoves and coal fires are the single largest source of small particulate matter and they trigger & aggravate chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Increased coal dust exposure is associated with increased risk of death from COPD. 

After vaccine nationalism, I see the rise of climate nationalism. This decade, till 2030-35 will be the last window for humanity to change the carbon dioxide emission tide so that the world can inch closer to Net Zero emissions by around 2050. 

The Net Zero timeline targets came almost hurtling by various countries typical to a competitive auction of a prized antique piece. Or, like a sales team target-fixation to appease the boss of a sales company: India, by 2070, China by 2060, the United States and the European Union by 2050. 

India missed a key goal of the CoP26 summit for nations to commit to reach that target by 2050. But it is better to be serious and realistic than frivolous in throwing dates here and there. 

India is the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, after US and China. But our income and our energy consumption is also far lower than theirs. Still India is undaunted and is tackling  energy transition and poverty reduction simultaneously.

Decarbonisation for India is a big target. We need to scale up solar power from 44 gigawatts now to 5,600 GW by 2070, reduce the share of fossil fuels drastically and push for electric vehicles. Imagine the humongous task ahead and our timeline of 2070. Along with decarbonisation comes the additional responsibility of the coal industry.

By an estimate, India will need about $1-3 trillion in the next decade to ramp up our efforts to reduce our dependence on coal (energy transition) and at the same time, to provide alternative livelihoods to workers long associated with the coal industry. After the closure of coal mines, what will they do? We need to devise mechanisms like direct transfers of money or a support system like universal basic income. 

Annually, we need to allocate about $12 billion to support coal dependent communities under just transition. Just transition is a fair and de-stressing shift from coal to renewable energies, while taking care of the livelihoods of the coal industry-affiliated workforce. This includes allied businesses too. 

We are with ‘end coal’ and that is the future. We need to phase out coal power “as soon as possible”. But we can’t turn a blind eye to the workers and their households. 

While these measures taken to reduce emissions and decrease the impact of climate change will be good for many, they might create trouble for the people employed in those industries. As the economies lean more towards cleaner energy fuels, people employed in the conventional fuel industries might face the risk of losing their livelihoods.

A survey of 2,415 people across five mining states — Karnataka, Odisha, Jharkhand, Goa and Chhattisgarh — showed that household incomes have fallen by more than half after the mining bans or closures. 

The report by Forum For Integrated Development And Research said:

With the household incomes depleted by more than half after the mining ban, the incidences of domestic violence have increased due to the joblessness and financial crunch to run families. The women and children are the worst sufferers due to the policy decisions to ban mining.

As India will strive towards achieving the 2070 target, Odisha’s contribution to the nation’s energy transition will be more important than perhaps what we assume now. In 2020-21, Odisha produced the second-highest quantity of coal (over 154 million tonnes) in the country. 

Coal India Ltd (CIL) expects a coal production programme of one billion tonnes from CIL mines by the year 2023-24. It is believed that this will help in reducing imports and hence protect the capital of the country. 

An Inter-Ministerial Committee has been constituted in the Union ministry of coal to help reduce the import of coal. In Odisha, the first state to have climate financing, about Rs 228.52 crore of the current budget should be available for groundwater recharge and solar micro-irrigation, with a focus on tribal areas of Odisha. 

There is something like a green climate fund in Odisha (about $34 million). It needs to have a larger pool for Just Transition. 

In each coal block in Odisha (and there are more than 31 blocks operational), there are more than 2,000 Project Affected Families — the primary stakeholders. There would also be more than 10,000s secondary stakeholders. At least half a million lives are associated with coal mining in Odisha, according to FIDR study.

Becoming Net Zero or carbon neutral means not adding to the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. It seems like there is a conflicting competition between what the climate activists and the nationalist narratives have been advocating. 

While the climate champions are building an impressive international movement, crossing borders, the nationalist discourses have been straddled to domestic politics. The core message that the world consists of nation-states in relentless competition with one another stands in sharp contrast to the climate movement’s “one planet” emphasis on human solidarity. And these two trends could be on a collision course. 

Greenhouse-gas emissions do not brook political borders and climate change affects all geographies of the planet. But the impact of global warming is not uniform. 

An average global temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius will create extreme heat conditions in India and Africa. Rising sea levels will imperil low-lying areas around the world. Extreme weather events will affect almost everyone, including the poor, marginalised and vulnerable populations. Carbon leakage as a result of trade is of global concern. 

While GHGs are emitted in one country by the production of, say, coal, it is the use of that coal in importing countries that “causes” the emissions in the exporting country. 

Arnold Schwarzenegger mentioned something very important: Buy local products. Every time you buy something from overseas, that is evil for the environment; this is like the worst thing you can do. 

He expressed his deep concern about air pollution and greenhouse gases coming from shipping and suggested that “the most important thing we can do as individuals to cut carbon is to shop local”. 

He was not averse to global capitalism, but he exhorts all to be smart to handle global trade without polluting shipping. This resonates with India’s Atmanirbhar Bharat in the long run.

Odisha’s vulnerability to climate change is a given and we are growingly getting despondent about the climate disasters that hit us regularly. The aftermath is terrible. 

While our measures are considered the ‘best practice’ in disaster management, our efforts in prevention (to avert disasters or minimise their severity) can’t be completely left to the almighty. For example, if we do not control coal mining and continue unabated, we don’t seek the almighty’s permission. 

Easy money and the habit of quaffing from the rental economy intoxicates us. One, climate activism and the civil society engagement drive to close coal mining is comatose in Odisha. Two, we do not have solutions for the coal industry dependent communities to survive the closure of coal mining. 

Coal is the villain. It creates soil and water contamination, loss of agricultural productivity, air pollution and has to be shut out. But the coal sector provides livelihoods and income to people and states. The Odisha government, during the 2020-21 financial year, had received coal royalty worth over Rs 1,855 crore.

I would urge the state government to proactively work in Just Transition, review the coal mining auctions and their periods of validity, and start preparing the communities for alternative livelihoods. 

If we steer the engagement of communities in gainful livelihood activities, the loss of royalty will turn notional and will more than offset the increase in domestic product.

It is not only energy transition — it is livelihood transition, fiscal transition and continued commitment (LFC). Time for “humane” LFC is ticking.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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