At a time when the country’s energy needs are growing at a staggering pace, India depends heavily on coal, drawing on the fifth-largest reserves in the world. But mining has consistently fallen below target, imports are rising fast, and the problems in the largely state-run industry may have even more far-reaching implications.
“It is essentially a combination of misgovernance, apathy and neglect of the entire sector,” Ashok Sreenivas of the Prayas Energy Group, a nonprofit think tank, said of the industry and its troubles. “It has been allowed to deteriorate out of the public eye.”
The problems at the Basundhara mine in eastern India offer an example of the difficulties that threaten to undermine the nation’s economic ambitions and its plans to create tens of millions of jobs for its growing young workforce through rapid industrialization.
At the mine, 1,400 trucks a day choke the road that wends its way from the site through forests and villages to the rail yard, belching diesel fumes and coating plants in black dust. But even that is not nearly enough.
Animesh Nandan Sahay, chairman of a subsidiary of the state-run Coal India, said the absence of a railway line stands in the way of a plan to “quickly ramp up’’ production at Basundhara to 80 million tons a year, from fewer than 12 million now.
It is a situation that is unimaginable in neighboring China, where coal production has been aggressively expanded during the past two decades to feed the maw of industry, and farmers, the environment and safety standards have been brushed aside in pursuit of economic growth.
Here in India, the world’s largest democracy, decision-making is less simple.
Coal India has been tied down by a snarly regulations and political populism, as well as by concerns about the environment and the rights of displaced farmers.
The ministries of environment and coal square off more like adversaries than partners, while the ministry of power is its own independent fiefdom.
The railway network is so inadequate that even power stations that depend on expensive imported coal cannot get it delivered, and plans to build a dedicated national freight network are years behind schedule.
But the biggest challenge, according to the chairman of Coal India, S. Narsing Rao, is getting villagers to agree to give up land that needs to be acquired for mining, something he says has become “significantly more complex” during the past five years.