A roaring economy is hitched to a galloping addiction to coal

Part one of a two-part series on coal in India.

JHARIA, India -- Night falls here by 5 p.m. and people stream into the open-air market to catch the latest political news. They have much to discuss, because elections are currently on in the state of Jharkhand, which is famous for three things: corruption, a home-grown terrorism threat called Naxalism, and this area's economic life, which is marked in every imaginable way by coal.

Coal-fired electricity lights a single incandescent bulb in each shop, and the combined yellow glow gives the market a festive air. Underneath this town, the earth is burning. Suresh Kumar, 50, secretary of a local union, leaves the tea shop where he has his makeshift office and steers his motorbike down a road lined with dark piles of mining debris.

The light from his headlight is blocked by plumes of smelly, sulfurous smoke seeping out of the ground. He stops suddenly, seeing how close he has come to the edge of an open-pit mine. In the far distance, there is an orange glow in the sky. It is a non-natural sunshine reflecting the burning of millions of tons of prime coking coal. The underground fire has burned out of control for nearly a century.

Coal is the bane of Jharkhand, and the reason why Kumar and his fellow residents need to move out of the town. If the government has its way, 17 open-pit mining complexes will be built here. Below the town lie 19 seams of prime coking coal. The government's goal is to get at the coal before the fire does.

There are many offshoots of this little drama that illustrate the high environmental and public health costs of extracting the biggest natural resource sustaining India's economic boom.

While environmental groups in developed nations talk of a coming world based on solar, wind and other forms of renewable energy, India's 8 percent economic growth rate is powered by coal. Its consumption is projected to increase by at least 400 percent by the year 2030, according to the government's 2005 Integrated Energy Policy report.

This means that in the next 20 years, India will extract, transport, import and burn coal at record rates. It could emit between 4 billion and 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year and approach the United States' current emission levels, according to the report.

"While others are worrying about global warming, India's energy elite fret mainly about how to secure enough coal," David Victor, a professor at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego, recently wrote in the Boston Review.


About 70 percent of India's electricity comes from coal-burning plants, and that fraction is likely to grow, according to Victor. At the moment, India's power supply is running about 12 percent behind demand, resulting in frequent blackouts. There is also a shortage of coking coal needed to feed the demands of cement and steel manufacturing.

"From the Indian perspective, which is driven primarily by economic needs at this point, the fact that coal is cheap and abundant has really led it to be the fuel of choice," said Jeremy Carl, a research fellow at the Program on Energy and Sustainable Development.

The Ministry of Coal predicts that India may need to mine about 2 billion tons of coal per year by 2030. Coal India Ltd., the state-owned mining company, now extracts 550 million tons. India has 70 billion tons in reserves (although estimates vary), but most of it is inaccessible because it is located below forested and inhabited land.

This bottleneck has pushed India to become the world's fourth-largest importer of primarily coking coal, according to the World Coal Institute. Container ships from Australia, South Africa and Indonesia arrive at its ports bearing steam and metallurgical coal. The fuel is transported hundreds of miles inland and burned in inefficient boilers built in days when greenhouse gas emissions were unheard of.

'Koyla,' a peculiarly sooty, messy business

The hunger for coal is keenly felt in small mining towns coated in soot and carbon because local economies balance precariously on "koyla," as the fuel is called in Hindi.

To show off the coal reserves here, mining engineers stand in a cage that drops down an elevator-like shaft. They drift slowly into darkness and emerge 48 feet below ground at Phulharitand Colliery.

Pallapothu Lakshmi Ranga Upendra, a deputy chief mining engineer, uses his hand-held lamp to cast a yellow beam down the steeply sloping tunnel. The coal, he explains, extends over 200 yards underground in 11 layers or seams of coal. Above ground lie three small villages.

Mining here was begun in 1894 by landlords who started extracting the coal closest to the ground. Once a few seams were removed manually, the mines were closed without safety precautions. Leaking methane combined with oxygen and coal to start combustion. The first big underground fires were detected in 1916.

In 1974, the government nationalized mining, giving control to Coal India Ltd. It is the largest mining company in the world, extracting about 500 million tons of coal in 2008. The eastern coal fields of Jharia are owned by one of Coal India's subsidiaries -- Bharat Coking Coal Ltd.

Phulharitand was built in the 1970s. Upendra leads his miners and a visitor down one of its slippery rock tunnels, which slopes downward as he rattles off some unpleasant statistics. "An average miner's lung has 0.5 kilograms of fine coal dust at the end of his lifetime," he explains. Bharat Coking Coal employed 184,000 workers when it first took over in the 1970s. Now it employs 74,400.

A generator of multiple losses

Despite soaring demand for coal, this is a business of multiple losses. The labor force shrinks by 3,500 workers a year from illness, death or retirement, according to Bharat statistics. Phulharitand runs at a net annual loss of $2.6 million, but employment is guaranteed until retirement in a policy with socialistic leanings, according to Upendra.

He expects about half of its present workers to retire in the next five years due to an aging population. Meanwhile, the mine is embarking on a mechanization scheme that it hopes will cut the loss to $1.7 million.

While fires raged underground, towns expanded above. People continued to settle and create local economies woven around coal. Binda Devi, 40, the wife of a coal dump truck driver, has lived in Jharia all her life. Brightly dressed in a fluorescent yellow and pink sari, she stands next to heap of D-grade middling coal that she uses for cooking.

"It is low-quality coal," she says in Hindi. "It doesn't have oil inside." Here, big and small pieces of life converge around "koyla." Her husband drives a truck that carries coal. Bharat Coking Coal has given them a one-room house in the coal field.

Residents received a rude shock post-nationalization when their land was declared a fire-hazard zone. Property values plunged. Jharia witnessed the closing of its theater and cultural centers. The wealthy left. The ones who remained behind were those who couldn't afford to leave.

The voids left by the burning coal have made the ground subside often, plunging roads, houses and travelers into troughs. Bharat Coking Coal has issued notices to the residents asking them to clear out. The master plan is a relocation of the residents to a coal-free settlement.

Rakesh Sinha, director of Bharat, is relaxed in his office in Koyla Nagar ("Coal Town"). Despite being in charge of the most problem-ridden mining operation in India, he is sure things will improve. "We will dig out fire, reclaim the land," he explains.

Bury the fire and lose the coal?

There are alternate ways to put out the fire, according to Ananth Chikkatur, who co-authored a study on India's coal sector at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. The owners could reduce the flow of oxygen by filling the tunnels with inert material, but this would make the coal permanently inaccessible.

But Jharia is sitting atop $12 billion worth of coal. A plan that will attempt to relocate 79,000 families and convert the land into 17 opencast mining clusters has gotten approval from the central and state governments.

The plan will affect 60 square miles of inhabited and forested land in the fire triangle. Ultimately, officials hope the remaining 75 square miles of the coal field that are not under fire will be relocated and opened up to large-scale mining, as well, according to Gurdeep Singh, head of the Centre of Mining Environment at the Indian School of Mines in Jharkhand, which helped draw up the plan.

"Ultimately, they have to remove the settlements," said Singh. "The coal is important for the national economy."

And where normally people might protest against a plan to move towns, raze trees and excavate the ground, in Jharia, most acknowledge that the plan is the only way to go.

"I don't see anything wrong with plan. That area is gone. There is nothing to be saved," said Chandra Bhushan, an environmental activist and researcher with the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment.

Kumar, the local union official who conducts his business in tea shops, agrees with Bhushan. Kumar stands to lose a lot. His property in Jharia is valued at $21,500. The government is offering $975 in return for his land. While he hopes to negotiate better terms for his resettlement, he agrees that he has little choice but to move out of the town that has housed his family for four generations.

Ministries battle while the ground burns

In theory, Kumar is protected by India's environmental laws, but Bharat Coking Coal has found environmental hurdles vanishing in recent years as the nation's environment is pitted against its galloping energy needs. Coal India, for example, tends to mine more than the permitted amount in certain areas. This is a point of contention among the Ministry of Environment and Forests, the Ministry of Power, and Coal India as local pollution issues collide with the power demands of the country.

According to Coal India, mining should not have a cap as long as the pollution limits are being met.

"I operate 473 mines," said Partha Bhattacharyya, chairman of the company. "If product fails in some mines, I can't keep consumers hungry, so I want to cover the gap from adjoining mines after caring for the environment."

There are plans to increase production of solar and nuclear power, but coal will provide more than half of the energy needs of India at least until 2030, according to government reports.

"Even if India somehow succeeds in developing 100,000 megawatts of renewable capacity over the next 25 years compared to 6,161 megawatts as on March 2005, the contribution of renewables to our energy mix does not go beyond 4.5 percent of total electricity required in 2031 to 2032," states the nation's Integrated Energy Policy report.

Facing a severe shortage of coal, most of India's policymakers are focused on finding ways to increase supplies. Coal, they acknowledge, is the answer to their growth needs, at least in the medium term.

One upshot of this approach is that Jharia waits to be relocated. "All representatives have gone to Copenhagen to discuss climate change," explains Kumar with a laugh in Hindi, referring to the international climate talks that were held in Denmark in December. "But here, the damage is already done. Houses will cave in, and we'll go into the ground."

Anil Das, a freelance journalist based in New Delhi, contributed.

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