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India: The costs of coal

Reviewed item: 

An impressive and thorough book on all aspects of coal mining in India, and especially on its impact on local communities and the environment. The book deals with basic characteristics of Indian society and conveys a strong plea for societal change to the outside world.

Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt has written and edited an impressive book. It is centred on coal in India: its mining, institutional backing, and above all, its impact on - often poor - local and regional communities, and on the environment. But it reaches far beyond a material object and can in many respects even be read as a metaphor of Indian society. Moreover, the book voices a strong societal message and its contents should be heard far beyond mainstream academic discourses.
The origins of the book date from a 2008 workshop hosted by the renowned Delhi-based exponent of India’s civil society, the Centre of Science and Environment, in order to bridge the gap between two bodies of knowledge on ‘coal in its entirety’ (xxiv). The first one exists among grassroots civil society groups and the second one among ‘Many academic researchers [who] tend to engage exclusively with those within their disciplines’ ignoring the ‘ongoing work of activists’ (xxii). The book includes selected papers from the workshop, invited papers and articles published originally elsewhere. Not surprisingly the editor conveys the message of researchers, activists and community groups ‘that the ways in which the Indian state operates ... with regard to coal mining must change. A sovereign state’s primary responsibility is towards its people, not the commercial business houses and corporations’ (xxiv). This strong statement is supported by 15 often sturdy and outspoken papers, well documented and almost all based on empirical evidence.
The papers are organised in an introduction and three sections. The introduction, written by Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt starts with the history of coal mining that started in British India, and continued with vigour after India’s independence. The mining sector was nationalised in the 1970s and subsequently the state corporation Coal India Limited (with 85% of the coal production in the country) was formed. Coal mining can be seen as a flagship of India’s planned development and even nation building, and moreover, coal accounts for two-thirds of the national electricity supply and is hence regarded as ‘an equivalent to national wellbeing’ (18). But, Lahiri-Dutt remarks, a public sector enterprise such as CIL became inefficient and corrupt, ‘neither answerable to the state nor to the poorest of the people who live on the richest coal bearing tracts of the country’ (18). A poor record in land acquisition, resettlements of displaced communities and environmental concern, testifies for the other side of the shining formal coin of an iconic public sector corporation, to a large extent exemplary of India’s development path. A paper by Walter Fernandes and Gita Bharali on mining in general and on the Northeast of the country in particular – elsewhere in the book – could have served here as auxiliary reading for getting background data on (un)employment, displaced persons (seven million, the authors guess), loss of agricultural land, environmental damage, etc.   

Views on mining
In the first section, on ‘Justice, Legality and History’, five papers deal with varying aspects of the zones of conflict between formal rules and regulations and actual practice. Lahiri-Dutt observes in a paper on informal mining that ‘A common sight in Eastern India is that of hundreds of cycles, each loaded with 200-300 kilograms of coal packed in sacks, being pushed like beasts of burden, or packhorses. Questions arise as to who these people are and what they are doing’ (26-27). No less than 20% of coal is mined on top of the official amount. According to the media these are illegal mineworkers and thieves, but they actually present part of daily life of de-agrarianised and pauperised communities in unintended collieries in coal-bearing tracts, and part of their moral economy.
In two subsequent chapters coal mining is situated in its societal settings. The history of mining in Assam in Eastern India is described by Arupjyoti Saikia from its start in the 19th century. From an important source of political and economic strength for the colonial administration, its impact dwindled over the years and, as Saikia concludes, ‘the coal economy failed to inspire Assam’s residents or to galvanize the surrounding agrarian economy’ (75). The meaning of coal-mining is quite different in the nearby Indian state of Meghalaya. Debojyoti Das gives a detailed account of the important role of informal mining (using the term ’extra-legal’) for a large part of the population of this state. Meghalaya has a restricted land transfer regime, preventing until recently the development of large scale exploitation. Elites among the dominant tribal community of the Khasi could control mining and use traditional land ownership, and hence ownership of coal, to effectively exploit impoverished migrants from Bangla Desh, Nepal and central Indian states.
Safety politics and practices in colonial India stand central in a chapter by Dhiraj Kumar Nite. Contradictions exist between formal safety measures and pushing colliers into perilous working conditions for the sake of efficiency on the one hand, and ideas of formal (‘modern’) safety versus a traditional kharma, ‘an incoherent combination of beliefs and attitudes constituted by faith in fate, coincidence, and in the necessity of exploiting favourable omens’, on the other (123).
Lahiri-Dutt fulminates in the next chapter on attempts to close uneconomic mines by the public sector company Eastern Coalfields Limited (a subsidiary of the CIL) and a possible takeover by private companies in West Bengal in the 1990s. Technology intensive open cast mining replaces the labour intensive underground mines, ‘the underbelly of liberalization’ (141) inspired by cost-benefit considerations, while depriving workers of their rights of a livelihood and creating environmental havoc.    

Social impacts of mining
A second section on ‘Mining Displacement and Other Social Impacts’ comprises chapters on specific and detailed cases regarding the impact of the mining of coal. Four studies pertain to what Lahiri-Dutt calls the most critical social issues regarding coal: displacement of the poor as a result of mining operations. And not without reason, when reading the presented evidence in the papers. Tony Herbert and Lahiri-Dutt present in detail the course of an open-cast mining project in the state of Jharkhand, World Bank-funded and implemented under a series of WB guidelines and criteria to guarantee, e.g., income restoration and re-housing. An inspection panel of the WB had to conclude, however, that compensation after displacement in whatever form has not been materialised by the mining company and local authorities, whereupon the WB decided to close its involvement with this project. Lahiri-Dutt, Radhika Krishnan and Nesar Ahmad asked how it became possible that a private mining company (or its middlemen) managed to acquire land from tribal communities, also in Jharkhand, that was inalienable by law of 1908. The Coal Bearing Areas act of half a century later was moreover passed in order to establish greater public control over the coal mining industry. This law, the authors comment bitterly, has been abused by ‘private corporations to manipulate revenue-hungry state governments’ and turned ‘into a deadly weapon that undermines the very philosophy of social justice’, (169) and the developmental state. The authors propose an overhaul of mining governance towards some form of participatory management, comparable to recent processes to give rights to forest land and forest resources to the actual forest-dwellers (178).
Patrik Oskarsson discusses subsequently the various politics of the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh to engage in open-cast mining. There are vast areas in this state with coal deposits, but there is a preference for marginal common land and subtle politics of divide-and-rule to disunite the various inhabitants in such tracts. The formally acknowledged tribal communities (‘Scheduled Tribes’) often get better compensation deals since they have inalienable rights over land in ‘Scheduled Areas’, though they ‘remain almost completely dependent on the goodwill of the administration’ for the time being (206). Coal mining does not only displace people, it also induces water scarcity and pollution as Prajna Paramitas Mishra analyses in villages near a mining project in the state of Odisha. She remarks that women are burdened most with declining water qualities and quantities. This remark is part of the central theme in the chapter by Nesar Ahmad and Lahiri-Dutt on gender aspects of displacement and rehabilitation in a coal mining region in Jharkhand. The authors argue that these gender aspects are ignored in literature on displacements even though it is widely known that women depend more than men on the resources offered by the local environment, as the authors demonstrate for two specific cases of mining-cum-displacement. Displacements are gendered, and losses of houses, land, food, water, security, hit women harder than men.

Towards the future of the mining of coal
The third and final section on ‘Social Perspectives to Inform Mining Policy’ deals with policy considerations based on the presented evidence in the previous chapters. Laws and policies that govern land rights, displacement, rehabilitation and resettlement, due to coal mining are brought together in a chapter by Nesar Ahmad. Much of the presented information can also be found in several preceding chapters, but a more comprehensive overview seems useful. Ahmad ends with the far reaching conclusion that new legislation that includes prior consent of relevant communities is necessary. ‘This means that communities should retain the crucial right to refuse proposed projects’ (272). Amarendra Das advocates transfer of ownership of minerals from the federal government to those of the relevant states of India, in order to ensure that the revenue from coal mining is invested in these states. Ananth Chikkatur and Ambuj Sagar give in a final chapter a summing-up of the problems of the mining sector from the point of view of a needed expansion in view of the increasing demand for coal as a major source of energy. The authors add that such expansion needs to take the interest of involved communities and the environment into account. However, Lahiri-Dutt cynically remarks earlier in the book that when development is seen as ‘in the national interest’ it renders the sufferings of displaced people invisible (29). This remark leads her to question whether displacements and other negative impacts on local communities are just aspects of mining that have only to be reformed and minimised; or if they are ‘intrinsic to contemporary ideas of mining development in India’, a development model in crisis and an inherent part of neoliberalism that needs radical change (29). The chapters in this book tend to a reformist approach, though - once more - powerfully and loudly worded.

Hans Schenk, University of Amsterdam (retd) (

citation: Schenk, H. 2016. Review of Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt (ed.) 2014. The Coal Nation, Histories, Ecologies and Politics of Coal in India, published 29 April 2016:


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