For a just transition, India needs to show solidarity with those at the losing end of the bargain, says experts| Photo: India Development Review (IDR)

Pitfalls and opportunities: How to find justice in India’s low-carbon energy transition

The green transition must include both not just jobs but also social security for informal workers. If it just replicates the injustices of the current system, nothing will change on the ground, say experts   

In a report released earlier this year, the International Forum for Environment, Sustainability & Technology (iFOREST) estimated that there are about 120 districts (out of the 718 districts) in the country with a sizeable presence of fossil fuel or fossil fuel-dependent industries. The report emphasised that policy and planning for transition in the coal sector should be prioritised from a just transition perspective.

To boost India’s ambition to reduce carbon emissions, states are now increasingly committed to investing in no new coal-fired projects. But for coal-rich states like Jharkhand, Odisha, West Bengal, Telangana and Chhattisgarh, the transition from coal to renewable energy poses many questions. What will be the future of crores of daily wagers working in coal plants?  How can workers be trained for this change in their employment? How can a just transition translate to an inclusive, economically beneficial solution? Is there adequate and suitable employment potential in renewable energy to absorb fossil fuel workers who might lose their jobs? 

Informal workers: A major concern in just transition

Sources: iFOREST estimates based on annual reports, Annual Survey of Industries and NSSO 68th round of survey

The biggest hurdle to the low-carbon energy transition in coal-rich states is that mines are often situated at locations with endemic poverty levels and poor social infrastructure. People are completely dependent on coal for their livelihood in these areas. This is particularly true in Jharkhand, which is home to several coal mines older than 100 years, and where a large chunk of the workforce, including large numbers of informal workers, is engaged in the coal supply chain. 

In Chhattisgarh’s Korba district, the iForest report noted that 7.2% of the workforce is formally employed in coal-mining and thermal power plants. However, overall employment of the coal sector is nearly three times this when informal workers are added to the mix. The same pattern is seen in other key coal regions like Dhanbad and Chatra districts of Jharkhand, and Angul and Jharsuguda districts of Odisha.

Srestha Banerjee, director of Just Transition at iFOREST, told CarbonCopy that there is a large unorganised labour force in Jharkhand–almost three times that of organised workers. Since there is no inventory of these informal workers, it would be a daunting task to plan reskilling and retraining of these workers for a just transition, she said. 

“The biggest problem in equitable energy conversion in a large country like India is how we will compensate informal workers [without any inventory] dependent on the coal economy when they lose their jobs,” she said.

Banerjee said the average monthly income of a family of at least five members of workers in the unorganised sector does not exceed 10,000.  “According to the Multi-Dimensional Poverty Index, more than 50% of the population in coal-economy states is poor. They don’t have basic facilities for education or health. When we talk about coal transition, we have to first deal with the multifaceted problems of coal daily wage workers,” she emphasised.

Can renewable energy sector jobs absorb the coal mine workforce?

It is believed that renewable energy (RE) will be at the core of any country’s energy transition. The modular nature of the technology makes it accessible to masses who can adopt it in their day-to-day use. Drastic reduction in prices have made RE adoption more viable. It can also provide an alternative for all categories of users–individuals (in kW), communities (kW to MW) and industries (>MW). 

While green energy jobs are shown as a solution to job losses in the coal sector, there are many doubts whether they will be suitable or even enough for the workforce.

According to a study, nearly all coal-mining areas in India are suitable for solar power, but not for wind power. It stated that to employ half a million of coal miners into solar power, India will have to increase its current capacity by 37 times (from 27 GW to 960 GW). It revealed there are less than 1% coal mining areas that are suitable for both solar and wind.

A Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) analysis also found out that the renewable sector currently employs about 1.5 lakh people compared to about six lakh people employed in coal mining and thermal generation activities.

Rishabh Jain, who works with the Centre for Energy Finance (CEF) of the CEEW, told CarbonCopy that India has only just crossed the 100 GW mark for installed renewable energy capacity, which is still less than half of the total thermal generation capacity in India. 

Analysis from a recent CEEW-IISD study found that in FY 2020, subsidies for renewables saw little change from FY 2019, but have fallen by 45% from a high of 15,470 crore in FY 2017 to 8,577 crore. Further reduction in prices will make the technology more competitive with alternative sources of power, leading to further reduction in subsidies for every unit of power, Jain said.

He said the RE sector offers employment opportunities across the entire value chain for highly skilled, semi-skilled, and low/unskilled workers. People involved in coal-mining activities could take up solar and wind construction and installation jobs. Highly skilled technical staff can take up engineering roles, including plant design, and operations & maintenance, and the managerial staff could offer their skill set for project development, business development, and liaison-related activities.

Speaking about the skill set required to work in the renewable sector, Jain explained that about 50% of jobs in RE are actually related to plant construction. Coal miners can be posted for construction activities with minimum re-skilling, whereas the technical staff and managerial staff would require some re-skilling. RE companies also recognise this need and are already providing on-the-job training to facilitate the transition, he said.

However, Rahul Tongia, senior fellow with the Center for Social and Economic Progress (CSEP), said India doesn’t manufacture a lot in the renewable energy sector and the main focus remains installation. Moreover, nothing major is happening in coal-rich states like Jharkhand and Chattisgarh, he added. Analysing the present situation, he said the current RE jobs cannot be a substitute for the informal workforce.

Research published this year by the University of British Columbia also stated, “Renewable energy jobs may or may not be suitable replacements for fossil fuel jobs; future work could assess the suitability of other industries for job replacement.”.

Clubbing DMF, CSR and other funds to build a resilient economy

A majority of India’s coal-producing states reflect direct or indirect dependencies on coal in the form of jobs, pension, District Mineral Fund (DMF), Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or a contribution of one or more of these.

Coal India Limited (CIL) reported a combined transfer of 430 billion to major coal-mining states such as Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, and Assam. Phasing out coal, therefore, will affect the revenue of the coal-producing states. 

Banerjee from iFOrest told CarbonCopy that the DMF is quite significant since it is a people’s fund and not a government fund. It carries the potential to create future security even if mining goes down in coal-rich regions, she added. TERI, in its report, also claimed that if DMF is properly used, it can indirectly facilitate the just transition process. Currently, it either remains under-utilised or used to fund large infrastructure projects with little distributed gains. 

Speaking about proper utilisation of the fund, Banerjee suggested that if DMF, CSR and other funds are clubbed together and invested on livelihood, infrastructure and economic diversification in the region, then people will not have to rely on welfare money coming from the industry forever.

“Invest through these funds so that in the coming time we have a resilient economy,” she said. 

More focus on health and environment

Most of the discussion on just transition revolves around balancing the socio-economic impact of transition away from coal. While many studies have explored the adverse effect of coal on health and environment, these two subjects are not yet adequately connected to the context of low-carbon transition despite ample evidence of correlation.

A 2019 study assessing surface water quality around opencast coal areas in Charhi and Kuju in Jharkhand found higher concentrations of iron, manganese, arsenic, and selenium. Another study done to assess the health of Tamnar block of Raigarh in Chhattisgarh revealed that mining activities have put the tribal population at an increased risk of diseases such as acute respiratory infection, tuberculosis, and road traffic accidents.

While a lot has been said about transformation, more focus should be on the environmental impact that has come historically with the coal mines, said Shweta Narayan, Global Climate & Health Campaigner at Health Care Without Harm. Toxins from coal mines have reached nearby villages and nobody is talking about fixing all these challenges that have come historically with coal mines, she added.

She told CarbonCopy that in all the health studies they have conducted in the coal sector, it has been found that malnutrition is the highest among all mining-related areas. “If development is taking place, then it is very important to ask the question of who bears the cost of the safety of people who work in coal mines?” 

How can India achieve just transition?

The concept of just transition is very new to India and for implementation that benefits the public, it needs to be recognised at different levels. According to experts, the government should make comprehensive plans so that everyone involved in this transition understands what they are working on.

According to Dr Ashwini K Swain, fellow at Centre for Policy Research (CPR), a just transition is an opportunity to fix injustice. There is a need for a broad framework with diverse solutions considering that all regions are different and they cannot be treated in the same way, he told CarbonCopy. Not only does India need a national-level framework, but it would also benefit from more localised strategies for a just transition.

“We need to recognise just transition at different levels. The government does not recognise this as a necessity, so the first step is to ensure it understands the urgency of ensuring a just transition,” he said, adding, “this should trickle down to lower levels of governance so that it becomes a part of regular government plans and strategies.”

CEEW fellow Vaibhav Chaturvedi, while referring to the economic aspects related to just transition, said that moving to a low-carbon economy is literally an economic transformation. 

Terming just transition as a good opportunity, Chaturvedi said, “I strongly believe that in every crisis lies an opportunity. Just transition is a crisis, but it also has opportunities. With just transition, we are talking 40-50 years ahead. Certainly, the picture of India’s future will be completely different at that time,” he says.

The conversion of these opportunities into tangible benefits for those most affected by the transition depends on flipping the way developmental changes are seen through a social lens in the country. According to Rathin Roy, managing director of research and policy at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), transitions are contentious and to have a just transition, the country needs to have political mobilisation and show solidarity with those at the losing end of the bargain. This would be a necessary requirement of any effort seeking to make ‘development transition’ just.  

According to him, ‘just development transition’ is failing because “the worse the jobs, the more likely it is those at the wrong end of the caste or tribal system to do those jobs.” It is not just economic inequality, but it is also social inequality that is at the root of Indian injustice, he said.

“If the ‘development transition’ is just, the green transition will also be just. If the green transition just replicates the injustices of the ‘development transition’, then nothing will change,” he added.

This is the second installment in a three-part series on the prospects of a just transition in India’s coal belt. The next installments will be published in the following days. You can read the first article here:

Profound inequality bears heavy on India’s energy transition