Millennium Post

An insatiable desire for coal

I was going to meet a friend at a coffee shop in Kolkata. As someone new to the city, I asked my friend for instructions to reach his office and was told to come to the only building on the road with a large number of solar panels installed on it. This building was the Coal India Limited’s (CIL) office. It struck me as both ironic and symbolic of the state of affairs in India, where a green step is almost always followed by a black (coal) one.

It would be hard to ignore the environment friendly decisions  taken by the Narendra Modi-led government. Climate change was added to the Department for Environment and Forests’ remit. Improving the efficiency of India’s electricity distribution system  became a government priority.
Newspapers reported that Modi planned to power one bulb in every household with solar energy by 2019. These reports, though, seemed to have been backed by action, especially when plans of  scaling up India’s National Solar Mission began doing the rounds in early January, 2015. Today, India is aiming for an ambitious Rs 6 lakh crore renewable energy push. The National Solar Mission’s target of reaching 1,00,000 megawatts by 2022 garnered support from  US President Barack Obama.

“We very much support India’s ambitious goal for solar energy and stand ready to speed this advancement with additional financing,” Obama said during a news conference at Hyderabad House in January, 2015. It was at this time that the Indian Premier acknowledged the obligation of “India and other nations” to act on reducing fossil-fuel emissions and articulated his plans to expand use of renewable energy as a way to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. This statement highlighted a shift in India’s tone on global warming.

India’s annual budget had some green steps too: the tax imposed for every metric tonne of coal mined was doubled and this money would be used to fund India’s clean energy plans. The government would also introduce a scheme to encourage the deployment of electric vehicles, while India’s current “carbon tax” on petrol and diesel “compared favourably” with other countries. So much so that the flagship annual document of the present government-the Economic Survey 2014-15 says that India has made considerable progress in tackling climate change.

However, the budget also reduced the allocation of funds to the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change from Rs 2,043 crore (US $378 million) in 2014-15 to Rs 1,681 crore ($300m). The government declined to fund new climate change adaptation measures.  India also seems to have a coal narrative running parallel to the green energy one. At the India Economic Summit in November 2014, Piyush Goyal, Minister of State for Power, Coal and New and Renewable Energy said, “Coal India production doubling in the next five years. It makes about 500 million tonnes hopefully this year. We (will) do a billion tonnes in 2019”.

In order to achieve this ambitious target, CIL’s chief officer, who is chalking out the plan for this initiative, said that the country’s demand for coal was expected to touch 1.2 billion tonnes by 2019-20 at the envisaged growth rate of seven per cent. In 2014, Modi was applauded for swiftly responding to the Supreme Court’s decision to invalidate the allocation of coal blocks to private companies. In less than five months, however,  the government had re-auctioned 19 licenses as of mid-March. Meanwhile, mining of iron ore has resumed in Goa.

On March 20, key bills surrounding mines and coal were passed by the Indian Parliament. These bills mandated the auctioning of coal, iron ore limestone and manganese ore, now called ‘notified minerals’.  The mining bill proposes that there will be no renewal of mining concessions and the licence would be for 50 years. The government has already identified 199 mines for auction. Some would argue that this perplexing dichotomy in the Centre’s stance is based on the justification that India wants to develop, fast and almost at any cost; such that poverty elimination becomes possible. Since development is not possible without cheap accessible energy like coal, India’s choices are limited. But India needs to choose wisely and realise that for her the trade-offs between growth and environment are harsher than perhaps for any other nation.

The author is a freelance journalist
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