Ranchi: During COP26 in November 2021, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi vowed that by 2030 half of India's energy would come from renewables, and that the country would go net zero by 2070.

A year later Jharkhand, the biggest producer of coal in India with a total reserve of about 86.66 billion million tonnes, constituted the country's first "Just Transition" taskforce.

The concept of “Just Transition” has been around since the 1980s. It referred to reducing dependence on fossil fuel and transitioning to a green economy while ensuring that the marginalised communities engaged in the former sector were not disproportionately affected.

This could be achieved by providing workers and other stakeholders, who were dependent on the fossil fuel-reliant economy directly or indirectly, with skill training and alternative employment opportunities to safeguard their income and jobs.

In recent years the concept has gained traction as a means to meeting climate goals by ensuring sustainable livelihood opportunities for local communities that depend on these for sustenance, as they are brought along in the pivot to a net-zero future.

The Jharkhand task force, composed of 17 institutions including various state government departments, was created to work on seven thematic areas – livelihood, energy transition, coal transition, electric mobility, decarbonisation of industries, climate finance and capacity building.

However, in the sixteen months since the task force was constituted, not much has changed on the ground regarding cutting down on coal in the state, which was expected as per the Just Transition efforts.

According to a Right to Information (RTI) response from Central Coalfield Limited (CCL), not a single coal mine -- even where the reserves have been exhausted, like Bhadua OCP, Dhobdih UG and Ray Bachra UG -- has been formally closed. And far from moving away from coal, the state has seen the introduction of new coal projects in the last year.

The coal production in Jharkhand is slated to increase from 165.38 million tonnes in 2022-23 to 263.34 million tonnes by 2025-26, as per a response to an unstarred question in Parliament. Further, the 2022-23 annual report of the Ministry of Coal stated that about 16 coal mines in Jharkhand – the highest in India – had been auctioned since the introduction of the auction-based participation of the private sector in 2014.

"For the next 40-50 years, coal is not going anywhere. New projects are being cleared/approved," said Pooja Gupta, a Research Associate in the Climate Action program at the National Foundation of India (NFI). "On top of that, while officials are having conversations about Just Transition and mine closures, the process of shutting the mines is in limbo."

Closing coal mines scientifically

India's Coal Ministry in December 2022 said that it has taken various steps to mitigate the adverse impacts of coal mining, and has aligned itself to sustainable environment-friendly practices for the areas affected by various coal mining activities.

"One such aspect is dealing with the mine closure cases of abandoned/closed/legacy mines, or mines to be closed in [the] near future based on the principle of Just Transition for All," the Coal Ministry said.

Coal India Limited (CIL) has established guidelines for the scientific closure of mines since 2009, aiming to restore mined-out land and purposefully reuse it for the benefit of the local communities. However, not a single coal mine in Jharkhand, which accounts for 26 percent of all coal mines in India, has lived up to that promise.

Experts believe that the lack of effort from coal mining companies towards scientifically closing mines, and the absence of policy regarding returning the land to its owners and tenants, pose major challenges to the state’s sustainable just transition efforts.

Then there is the issue of poorly formulated policy. “If it wasn’t specifically mentioned that coal mines were permanently or formally closed, it meant that the companies could always come back to excavate more minerals,” said Vagisha Nandan, who formerly worked as the state (Jharkhand) program coordinator of Just Transition for iForest, an independent non-profit environmental research and innovation organisation.

India's Coal Ministry recently announced that it has identified 299 mines as abandoned, discontinued, or closed, and that CIL has taken proactive steps towards the closure of these mines. However, it's not known how many coal mines from Jharkhand feature in that list.

Rather than adhering to scientific closure of mines upon resource depletion, experts say companies often opt to just abandon the sites. This is attributed to the considerable cost associated with the land reclamation process, a crucial step in the mine closure procedure.

Land reclamation involves following a comprehensive plan to restore the solid structure and revegetation by agriculture or forestry to improve the physical condition of the mined land. Since this involves considerable expense, companies have been prone to merely abandoning depleted mines.

Such mines are also prone to illegal mining and could be reopened for excavation. In 2022, for instance, CIL offered 22 such coal mines to the private sector to bring them back into production.

The land reclamation, therefore, was essential in the Just Transition process because it required the coal companies to rehabilitate the land, so that it could be used by the indigenous communities.

Gupta told IndiaSpend that even if in some cases companies do carry out the "land reclamation" process, they don’t do it properly. "They fill the mine pits instead of rebuilding the original soil structure," said Gupta.

She recounted an incident where land reclamation involved filling up mine pits with rainwater that had become acidic, a water source utilized by the local population. "There is a lack of knowledge on the ground regarding what reclamation means,” she added.

Demand to Return Land Rises

A study conducted in 2023 revealed that one in every three coal workers in Jharkhand prefers agriculture as an alternative livelihood option once India transitions away from coal and moves towards clean energy sources to achieve its net-zero goals.

It has been almost a decade since Naresh Mahto, a daily wage labourer from Kedla village of Jharkhand's Ramgarh district, was promised a job at the Kedla Underground Mining (UG) by the Central Coalfield Limited as compensation after the company acquired his ancestral six-acre agricultural land for mining.

The coal mine closed down temporarily in 2020 leaving Naresh, 32, with neither land or job.

Almost seven percent of Kedla's population have a formal job in coal mining or related industries, while almost 20 percent depend on the sector informally.

The temporary closure of the coal mine forced many workers to migrate to neighbouring villages, where mining is still underway. But Naresh, who still hasn’t got the promised job, wants a return to status quo ante. “I would prefer to have my land back, which I can cultivate instead of a mining job,” he said.

Naresh is not the only one who wants his ancestral land to be returned to him. Most villagers that Land Conflict Watch (LCW) met in Kedla and other villages had similar demands. “About 100-150 family members used to sustain themselves from our 15-acre land that had been acquired by the CCL several years ago," said Brij Mahto, another resident of Kedla village. "I think nothing would be better than these companies leaving our villages and returning the land [to us].”

Experts too have advocated returning the land to the communities from which it was originally taken. “Just Transition entails caring for people, managing climate impact, and implementing robust policies and stakeholder engagements, ensuring fairness and compensation for all affected,” said Ram Babu Prasad, Director of Tech and Operations at CCL. "There should be some contemplation over returning the land to the government and the farmers from whom it was taken."

Broken Promises

It has been found that the coal mines that were taken on lease from the state government have not even been returned to them, which could have been used to transition from “carbon-positive” to low-emissions practices. As per an RTI response and CIL's response in Parliament, there is no provision (in the Coal Bearing Areas Act or otherwise) to return the land acquired for coal mining to the original owners/tenants after completion of mining work.

“In all these years of coal mining, not even one parcel of land taken for excavation has been returned to the state government," said Shreekant Verma, Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) at Jharkhand’s Department of Forest, Environment & Climate Change. How, he asked, can the department take environmental conservation initiatives when the land is not returned to it?

Last year, the central government sent the draft Coal Bearing Area (Acquisition and Development) Amendment Bill, 2023, to the Jharkhand government. The draft bill sought to extend the fixed lease period from thirty years to a lifetime. It also involved diverting the unused mines (which were not operational) to private entities for coal and energy-related infrastructure projects.

The state government objected to the draft bill, saying it would cause harm to its initiative of returning such unused lands to the original owners.

For now, Just Transition merely remains on paper, as does India’s promise to move away from coal. Despite the push towards sustainability, India is anticipated to witness a rise in coal production in the next decade. It is expected to cross 1 billion tonnes this year; the government's target for 2030 is 1.5 billion tonnes.

Experts say coal will continue to play a significant role as a primary energy source in the country. "Coal mining will last for more than 100 years,” said Prasad of CCL.

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