18 May, 2015
“Just as a worker celebrating their 65th birthday can settle into a more sedate lifestyle while they look back on past achievements, we argue that thermal coal has reached its retirement age.” - Goldman Sachs
India is the world’s second-largest coal consumer overtaking Japan as the world’s second-largest importer. Coal and Power Minister Piyush Goyal emphasised that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government has accorded a top priority to coal and generation of power. Narendra Taneja, energy spokesperson of BJP, has claimed that coal and gas will remain the mainstay of the country’s economy for the next 50-60 years. According to trade experts India is at the center of the coal market now that Chinese demand is slowing down. Indian buyers are taking advantage of low coal prices, which have dropped to near seven-year lows. Prices have slumped due to a combination of oversupply in the market and relatively weak demand. The depreciation in local currencies of producers such as South Africa and Russia against the dollar has given them room to cut their dollar-denominated selling prices as well. India’s coal reserves in the ground are among the largest in the world. But production by state-owned Coal India has failed to keep pace with demand growth, which has increased the need for imports. India doesn’t really have many options in terms of large scale, cheap fuel for power generation. It expects Indian coal imports to increase and India is commissioning new coal-fired power stations every year. And if India wants its economy to grow at 6 to 7 percent it needs thermal coal power generation. It’s already running short of power.
So India plans to double domestic coal production to 1 billion tonnes per annum by the end of this decade. An effort is now under way to dilute environmental laws in the country doing away with social impact assessment and community consent. The ordinance is facing stiff resistance from opposition parties and the general masses of India. Any project, either private or under a public private partnership, previously required the consent of 80 percent of the community that the project impacted but no such consent is now required. Social impact assessments that factors in effects on the environment and human health, among others, were mandatory for projects and while such assessments were shoddy in the past, doing away with them completely sets a poor precedent for industrial practices and gives even less of a reason for companies to clean up their acts.
Air pollution is killing Indians every year and is now the fifth largest contributor of deaths in the country. The fact that 13 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in India is a cause for great alarm. A study has indicated that one in three children have shown a reduction in lung function in Delhi. The World Health Organisation report, which makes this claim, advises it is only getting worse. In Delhi, for instance, coal roughly contributes 30 percent of recorded air pollution (particulate matter) and the numbers are higher in the coal clusters of the country. Coal-fired plants are a large source of the air pollution that is taking a toll on people’s health and their livelihoods. A report reveals in another 15 years between 186,500 and 229,500 people may die premature deaths annually as a result of a spike in air pollution caused by coal-fired power plants.
The reality of climate change is that by signing on to a global agreement that pledges to limit the rise in the earth’s surface temperature to 2 degrees Celsius, India has effectively signaled the imminent decline in the use of fossil fuels in order to avoid the worst impacts of global warming. To achieve this much needed and agreed upon limit on temperature rise, 82 percent of known global coal reserves should be left in the hole. This roughly translates into 66 percent of known coal reserves in India and China. Investment in coal would come at a heavy ecological cost.
Piyush Goyal, said that India’s per capita consumption of coal is what the US had in the 1860s. “The US has had 150 years to develop their country from cheap power using coal. Having met their development needs, it is easy to tell us that it is India’s imperative to clean the world. That is not acceptable.” And so capitalist growth prevails as government policy, regardless of the known effects upon the health of the environment and of the Indian people themselves.