Editor's Note


As Narendra Modi promises to make India a developed country in the next 25 years, the transition will depend on how equitable and sustainable it is

Social media works in strange ways. A 36-year-old video clip from the Academy Awards of 1986 has suddenly resurfaced. In it, the beautiful Marlee Matlin is seen walking up the podium amid a thunderous applause to accept the Oscar for her performance in Children of a Lesser God. “I just want to thank a lot of people … I love you,” she had said in sign language as she became the first deaf actor to win an Academy Award. The Oscars gave the voiceless Matlin a platform, a voice to fight for the rights of disadvantaged people.

But, social media does not bother itself with Tunnu and his family or Ganesh or other "children of a lesser god"; these mine dwellers remain voiceless forever, as their destinies are drawn up in meeting rooms over 7,000 kilometres away from Jharkhand in Glasgow. Phrases such as just transition mean nothing to them. Covered in soot, they stare blankly as reporters tell them about coal mine closures and sustainability. They are illegal coal miners: they have seen mines being shut only to move to the other nearby mines for work. Underfed and overworked, they carry chunks of coal from mines to the clearing areas for just Rs 50 a sack. In the next 10 years, the mines around their villages will be shut. But, Tunnu is just six years old. How can life be tougher than it already is? He does not understand.

But, for us to understand the causes and effects of Tunnu’s life, we have to go back in history to 1952 when Nehru, in his quest for a modern Indian economy, enacted the freight equalisation policy. The idea was balanced regional development, but the result was stunted growth of mineral-rich states, such as Jharkhand, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh. This can be stretched to extrapolate that India’s west developed at the cost of east and south at the cost of north.

As Narendra Modi promises to make India a developed country in the next 25 years, the transition will depend on how equitable and sustainable it is. Forty per cent of India’s poorest live in the north and east. Can Modi correct this historical wrong?

Holding the key to this question are India’s commitments made at Glasgow last year. To fulfil them, India needs to wind down coal mining. Studies estimate about 20 million jobs are dependent on our coal economy. To put this number in perspective, this is roughly the size of Sri Lanka’s population. As renewable capacity starts to ramp up and coal mines start to reduce their production and taper off, the local economy in coal-producing states will be left stranded. Experiences in Wales demonstrate the vulnerability of coal miners; even three decades after coal mining was stopped, the British region is still struggling to find its feet.

The challenge for India will be to provide alternative and sustainable livelihoods to the local population. The magnitude of the task can be gauged by a close look at Poland. A coal-intensive economy, Poland received €3.5 billion in just transition fund from the World Bank and the European Union to rehabilitate 90,000 affected people. This number is less than of those living in the Bokaro district alone, which is being taken up by the Indian government for pilot implementation of its just transition plan.

We might not have the Polish advantage of a multilateral fund pouring in. So, how do we overcome the transition challenge? The answer lies in our politicians rising to the occasion to leave politics out of this one.