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History of Coal in India

Coal is one of the ancient sources of energy known to mankind and its mining started thousands of years back. The early coal mine is documented in ancient China. It is a known fact that coal has played an important role in the industrial revolution, where it was primarily used to produce thermal energy and power steam engines.  

Coal has been mined in India since 1774, pioneered by the East India Company at Raniganj Coalfield, bank of Damodar River. Growth in coal production remained slow for nearly a century because of low demand. But the demand boosted as soon as the Steam locomotives introduced in India in the 19th century. The coal production in India was 729.10 MT of coal in 2019-20 as per the data collated by the Ministry of Coal. However, due to high demand and poor average quality, our country imports coking coal to meet the requirements of its steel plants. The largest coal-producing city in India is Dhanbad.

In 1956, Government of India established The National Coal Development Corporation (NCDC) to efficiently increase the coal production. Further, the nationalization of coal mining occurred in two phases. The first phase started with the nationalisation of coking coal mines in 1971 through the Coking Coal Mines (Emergency Provisions) Act, 1971 and the Coking Coal Mines (Nationalization) Act, 1972. The second phase started with the non-coking coal mines in 1973 through the Coal Mines (Nationalization) Act, 1973 enforced by the government and all coal mines in India were nationalized on 1 May 1973.

In 2015, the government permitted private sector companies to mine coal for self-consumption. The Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Act, 2015 enacted in March 2015 having the provisions to enable the government to allocate coal mines through auctions.

Coal
Coal, Image credit: www.pixabay.com

Reserves

Commercial coal mining in the modern era, since its beginning in India, has been governed by domestic consumption requirements. India has abundant domestic reserves of coal – the fifth largest in the world. With the discovery of an estimated 3.88 billion metric tons, the known reserves of coal rose by 1.23%.

Coal deposits are mainly found in eastern and south-central India. Jharkhand, Telangana, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, West Bengal, and Maharashtra account for 98.26% of the total known coal reserves. Jharkhand and Odisha had the largest coal deposits of 26.06% and 24.86%, respectively, as of March 2018. On account of the growing needs of India’s steel industry, systematic exploitation of coking coal reserves in the Jharia coalfield had to be pushed ahead.

Energy derived from coal is about twice that of the energy derived from oil in India. While globally, it is 30% less than energy derived from oil.

Production

After China, India is the 2nd largest producer of coal in the world. In 2019-20, the actual production during the year (April-Dec.19) was 480.04 Million tonnes.

Consumption

In 2017–18, industries in India consumed 896.34 MT of raw coal. The largest spenders of coal are electricity generation (576.19 MT), the steel and washery (58.50 MT), the sponge iron (8.51 MT) and the cement industries (7.70 MT). Coal generated more than 70% of the electricity produced in the last two years.

Because of poor average quality and high demand of coal, India is forced to import high-quality coal to meet the requirements of its steel plants. Our country’s coal imports have risen from 49.79 million metric tons to 208.27 million metric tons in the past decade. Coal exports rose from 1.63 million metric tons to 2.44 million metric tons in the previous decade, but later on, declined to 1.66 million metric tons in 2017–18.

Environmental effects

The burning of fossil fuels releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. This increases levels of CO2 and other gases trap heat and contributes to global climate change.

  • Coal-fired power plants release more greenhouse gases per unit of energy produced than any other source of electricity.
  • Coal mining releases methane. It is 87% more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2 over a two-decade period.
  • Volatile organic compounds react to form smog. Smog negatively impacts respiratory and cardiovascular systems in humans.
  • Fine particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5) is released into the atmosphere in the form of fly ash. This PM gets lodged in the lungs when inhaled.
  • Coal-fired power plants account for 41% of anthropogenic mercury emissions. These have the capability to travel long distances before being deposited in soil or water. Mercury is highly toxic as it bio-accumulates in food chains and especially dangerous to children.
  • Coal combustion waste has many toxic chemicals and heavy metals. These are known to cause kidney disease, birth defects, neurological damage, reproductive disorders, learning disabilities, and diabetes.
  • Under certain conditions, impoundment ponds, containing waste from coal combustion, are also known to leach contaminants like arsenic into the soil and groundwater. Thus, potentially poisoning freshwater sources.

In 2020, António Guterres, the UN secretary-general said that India should stop building coal-fired power stations before year-end and stop fossil fuel subsidies. Carbon Tracker, a think tank, estimated in 2020 that 17% of coal-fired plants were already more expensive than new renewable forms of energy and that by 2025, the percentage would increase to 85%.

Renewable energy Vs Coal

A report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) found out that renewable power is becoming increasingly cheaper than any new fossil fuel-based electricity source. The report details that, at present, new renewable power generation projects progressively undercut existent coal-fired plants. On average, keeping many existing coal plants running costs more than new solar photovoltaic (PV) and onshore wind power. Auction results showcase this growing trend – strengthening the case to entirely phase-out coal.

By 2030, India has goals to meet 40% of its energy requirement from non-fossil fuel sources. In order to protect the local industry from cheaper imports, our country has extended Safeguard Duty on imports of solar cells and modules by another year. India is hoping to become self-reliant to boost its crashing economy. It has plans to build coastal renewable energy equipment manufacturing hubs with active participation from private companies.

There is cause for hope

Many campaigns started by the country’s civil society help in spreading information about the hazards of continuing use of coal-fired power plants or coal mining. In this regard, a number of NGOs also work with renewable energy sectors and collaborate with the government’s initiatives to phase out coal. Although India has been at the forefront in terms of coal usage and production, given its religious utility in every aspect of our lives, yet considering the ever-increasing environmental impacts, it is mandatory to seriously think about other forms of energy that are not based on fossil fuels.

An increasingly contagious global movement is challenging the expansion of coal industries by promoting real solutions to the world’s electricity needs. Some governments and multilateral banks around the globe are starting to recognize that the costs of coal generation are unacceptable. Hence, rejecting financing for new coal plants. Grassroots activists have begun a burgeoning movement to force universities and institutional investors to withdraw from coal. For warding off catastrophic global climate change, it is imperative to end our dependence on coal by committing to affordable, sustainable, and renewable energy.

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