In Jharia, the earth has been burning for a hundred years. Home to rich veins of the finest coal, the mines of Jharia, near Dhanbad in Jharkhand, continue to fuel India’s growth story. Some have, however, caught fire, and have been burning since first reported in 1916.
More than 70 at last count, these fires in Jharia, that reach temperatures of 700 degrees in places, will rage on for another century or more.
A visit to the burning fields can be a surreal experience — a vacant, barren land devoid of any foliage, where flames rise high into the air, a land which can sustain no life. But this being India, half a million people depend on the 450 sq. km. of coalfields in Jharia.
The fires have already consumed 37 million tonnes of coal and another two billion tonnes have become inaccessible, resulting in losses worth ₹150 trillion. Such conflagrations are an inevitable result of coal mining, an engine of modern life that is also one of man’s most environmentally destructive acts.
To make matters worse, the coal in India is mostly under some of the dense forests still standing. Although coal mining started in 1774 in Raniganj, it has grown tremendously after Independence, and we have lost some 5,000 sq. km. of forests in the past three decades alone. If it continues to expand, millions of hectares of forest and biodiversity will be lost.
In a recent controversial incident, a proposed coalmine could have spelt the end of the ancient Mahan forest in Madhya Pradesh had the courts not intervened in 2015 to stop the felling. But we haven’t reached the end of the story. We don’t know yet if we can save the jungles of central India from our insatiable hunger for coal.
But it’s simplistic to see coal only as a scourge of the environment. It is also India’s primary source of energy. The high-grade coking coal from the Jharia mines, for instance, has made India a world leader in iron and steel. The abundant, cheap source of energy fuels our power plants to bring electricity to millions of homes. Over 65% of India’s power supply is generated from coal.
Can’t do without it
Although India has been rapidly growing its solar and wind parks, coal use will continue to rise in India, according to the International Energy Agency. With a growing fleet of thermal power plants running at 60% capacity and high demand growth, coal-fired generation will increase at nearly 4% every year till 2022.
As economic growth remains strong in India, industrial demand for thermal and coking coal is also expected to increase due to rising steel consumption, housing, railways and steel-intensive industries such as shipbuilding, defence and auto.
India, therefore, at present cannot do without coal. Despite our best efforts, renewable energy cannot contribute more than 40% to the power generation capacity.
It is thus futile to expect that the role of coal will diminish in the next two to three decades unless new types of energy become widely available.
Till that miracle happens, the 650 million tonnes of coal that India mines every year will not only continue to irrevocably degrade the environment, its burning will keep adding to the greenhouse effect that makes the earth unbearably hot. Energy wonks call this mining and burning of the so-called black gold the eternal cost of coal.
Not so bleak
The power sector alone was responsible for 41% of India’s total emissions of 1 billion tonnes in 2015. Given that our energy mix is dominated by coal-fired generation of about 75%, the intensity of emissions from electricity will continue to be high, as also from sectors such as industrial processes and transportation, according to Climate Tracker, an international database.
Is there no way we can mitigate this deplorable situation? Government policies should help, but seldom do. For instance, independent experts have slammedthe new National Forest Policy as being blinkered and misguided.
They also say compensatory afforestation, which is essential to replace the forests coal mining destroys, misses the wood for the trees, and is harmful for forest dwellers.
Not everything is so bleak though. The government in 2010 imposed a tax on every tonne of coal mined in the country. Currently at ₹400 per tonne, the cess has enabled the government to amass a corpus of as much as ₹540 billion till March 2017. If this money is spent on reviving the natural environment, the harm that coal causes can be somewhat cushioned.
As for the burning fields of Jharia, nothing we do will put them out. They will continue to spew toxic gases and ash, reminding us everyday that the only good coal is the one that stays unburnt underground.