Deocha Pachami Story

Bengal’s Black Diamond Dream

Madhusudan Datta

Deocha pachami coal block, extending over a range covering Birbhum, Burdwan, Bankura and Purulia in West Bengal, is supposed to be the largest coal block in India. It has been awarded to West Bengal Power Development Corporation Ltd. (WBPDCL) for development and extraction of coal. If the block can be exploited to the full, the possibility of which seems remote, it can meet the whole requirement of the projected demand of the Corporation in future and also help some development of the backward areas adjacent to the mines. There are talks of its huge employment potential which is simply exaggerated. In what perspective should one look at the development of the mines in the investment starved state?

There was a time, roughly from the seventeenth to the turn of nineteenth century, when cities located near coal mines grew faster than those located farther. This connection has disappeared with the development of transportation and power distribution network. Over the past several decades, with increasing intensity, coal mines and coal fired power (and other) plants are viewed as necessary nuisance. Developed countries, after polluting the earth over the past centuries, have made some progress in phasing out coal consumption, and global warming is making people raise their voice to kill coal. Pursuing energy efficiency the US and the European Union have progressively reduced their total energy consumption by more than 10 percent while China and India (with a little more than a fifth of China’s consumption) have doubled their energy consumption in the last decade and a half. Notably, the advanced countries have been able to drastically reduce the share of coal as the source of their primary energy while the developing ones have only maintained the share. Coal fired power generation is overwhelmingly the major source of emission of greenhouse gases in India and also, China.

The problem for developing countries, China and India being at the focus of attention, is that transition to green energy is unbearably costly. At the respective stages of development of China and, even more, India, demand for power will keep growing probably for decades in spite of adoption of power saving technologies. Green energy is still costlier, though research is making it progressively cheaper. Both the countries are aware of the dire consequences of firing fossil fuels in general, and coal in particular, but the requirement of investment at the present cost structure to achieve net zero emission by 2050 is beyond the capacity of India, if not of China too. This explains why the two countries still have a long, and probably growing, pipeline of coal power plants and coal development projects. The Economist estimates that the annual investment in green energy need to be $4 trillion by 2030 if net zero emission by 2050 is to be achieved to keep global warming hopefully limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The amount is about a third higher than current Indian GDP. A big part of the investment needs to be in India itself. Such is the reality.

So, what is to be done? There is no decisive answer as abandoning modern ways of life is impossible in the present unequal, competitive and hostile global scenario. Obviously the first point that comes to mind is to make mines and power plants more efficient to keep coal and power cheap and operations less polluting. To this objective Coal India, the public sector behemoth that accounts for more than 95% of coal output even after opening up of the sector to private players, has adopted aggressive plans of mechanization. The PSU aims at cutting its labour input from more than 2.5 lakh at present to only 1 lakh in a decade. The company is closing down mines that are viewed as grossly inefficient and floating tenders for a lot of high-end equipment. Nevertheless, coal cannot but pollute and keeping them far from cities only distributes pollution.

Data given by Smart Air shows China to have 9 and India 7 among 25 most polluted cities in the world in 2020 but; in 2021 India has 12 and China none probably not because China has significantly improved, the Indian cities declined in terms of the metric. In winter cities are blanketed by pernicious smog so much that emergency measures are already being talked of. Apart from this, global warming is also being regarded as an approaching disaster. India and China intervened to dilute marginally the resolve to end coal power (and fossil fuels) in the just held COP26, but the pressure will increase every passing year. How research will help fast transition to green energy is a matter of conjecture, similarly it is a matter of conjecture what the fate of coal mines will be after two decades. Experts say the deeper reason behind China’s recent coal crunch leading to widespread load shedding halting production is its efforts to restrain use of coal. It has relented for now. Will India take the same course after a decade or so? Deocha-Pachami will take a few years to start operations. It is not a rosy picture either for employment generation or overall.

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Vol. 54, No. 23, Dec 5 - 11, 2021