Every night, Raju straps half a dozen sacks of coal pilfered from mines — weighing up to 200 kilograms — to the reinforced metal frame of his bike, and cycles 16 kilometres to traders who pay him less than $3.

Key points:

  • India and China helped water down the COP26 pledge to “phase down” rather than “phase out” coal
  • Power demand in India is predicted to grow faster than anywhere in the world over the next two decades 
  • The typical American uses 12 times more electricity than the typical Indian, with 27 million still without it 

Thousands of others do the same.

This has been Raju’s life since he arrived in Dhanbad, an eastern Indian city in Jharkhand state, in 2016. 

Annual floods in his home region have destroyed most traditional farm jobs, so coal is all he has.

This is what climate change conferences like the COP26 are up against.

After pressure from India and China, the wording of the COP26’s final deal was diluted to a pledge to “phase down” rather than “phase out” coal.

The last-minute alteration left COP26 president Alok Sharma on the brink of tears.

Thick white smoke rises from chimneys at a steel plant in the green countryside

A coal-powered steel plant at Hehal village near Ranchi, in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand.(AP: Altaf Qadri)

The Earth desperately needs people to stop burning coal, the biggest single source of greenhouse gases, to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change — including the intense flooding that has cost agricultural jobs in India.

‘Many Indians have been saved by coal’

Coal remains the world’s biggest source of fuel for electric power. So many, desperate like Raju, depend on it for their very lives.

The developing world argues it should be allowed the “carbon space” to grow as developed nations have, by burning cheap fuels like coal, which is used in industrial processes such as steelmaking along with electric power generation.

On average, the typical American uses 12 times more electricity than the typical Indian. And there are over 27 million people in India who don’t have electricity at all.

A middle-aged Indian female in traditional garb has hands on hips as she smiles in front of coal mine

Around 300,000 Indians are employed at government-owned coal mines, including this woman in Dhanbad, Jharkhand state.(AP: Altaf Qadri)

Power demand in India is expected to grow faster than anywhere in the world over the next two decades.

And as its economy grows and ever more extreme heat increases, India’s need for the air conditioning that so much the rest of the world takes for granted is also certain to increase.

Coal India aims for 1 billion tonnes by 2024

Meeting that demand will not fall to people like Raju, but to Coal India.

It is already the world’s largest miner, and aims to increase production to 1 billion tonnes a year by 2024.

DD Ramanandan, the secretary at the Centre of Indian Trade Unions in Ranchi, said conversations about moving beyond coal were only taking place in Paris, Glasgow or New Delhi.

He said they had hardly begun in India’s coal belt.

A slim Indian man fills scavenged coal into sacks at dusk on open coal mine

Workers typically earn less than $5 a day from the sacks of coal they deliver to Indian traders.

  (AP: Altaf Qadri)

A 2021 Indian government study found that Jharkhand state — among the poorest in India and the state with the nation’s largest coal reserves — is also the most vulnerable Indian state to climate change.

But there are roughly 300,000 people working directly with government-owned coal mines, earning fixed salaries and benefits.

‘Coal is an ecosystem’ in India

There are nearly 4 million people in India whose livelihoods are directly or indirectly linked to coal, said Sandeep Pai, who studies energy security and climate change at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

India’s coal belt is dotted by industries that need the fuel, like steel and brick making. The Indian railways, the country’s largest employers, earns half its revenue by transporting coal, allowing it to subsidise passenger travel.

“Coal is an ecosystem,” Mr Pai said.

Indian women walk past flickering coal mine at dusk

India’s coal-dependent regions have to diversify their economies and retrain workers, experts say.(AP: Altaf Qadri)

For people like Naresh Chauhan, 50, and his wife Rina Devi, 45, India’s economic slowdown resulting from the pandemic has intensified their dependence on coal.

The two have lived in a village at the edge of the Jharia coalfield in Dhanbad all their lives.

Accidental fires, some of which have been blazing for decades, have charred the ground and left it spongy.

Smoke hisses from cracks in the surface near their hut. Fatal sinkholes are common.

The couple earn $4 a day selling four baskets of scavenged coal to traders.

Open cut Indian coal mine in production with smoke billowing and trucks manouvering

Coal mines remain crucial for India which is predicted to see energy needs grow faster than any other nation.(AP: Altaf Qadri)

Families who have lived amid coal mines for generations rarely own any land they can farm and have nowhere else to go.

Naresh hopes that his son would learn to drive so that he, at least, could get away. But even that may not be enough.

Coal thrives as other businesses suffer

There’s less work for the city’s existing taxi drivers.

Wedding parties, who in the past reserved cars to ferry guests, have shrunk. Fewer travellers come to the city than before.

That could mean even harder times for the people in Dhanbad as the world eventually does turn away from coal.

Mr Pai says this is already happening as renewable energy gets cheaper and coal becomes less and less profitable.

India and other countries with coal-dependent regions have to diversify their economies and retrain workers, he said.

This is both to protect the livelihoods of workers and to help speed the transition away from coal by offering new opportunities.

Otherwise, more will end up like Murti Devi. The 32-year-old single mother of four lost the job she had all her life when the mine she worked for closed four years ago.

Nothing came of the resettlement plans promised by the coal company so she, like so many others, turned to scavenging coal.

On good days, she’ll make a dollar. On other days, she relies on neighbours for help.

AP/ABC

Posted , updated 

‘Saved by coal’: Why India refuses to give up an ecosystem that gives life to millions
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