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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 1, December 20, 2008

Some Aspects of Self-Sufficiency in Energy

Sunday 21 December 2008, by Chaturanan Mishra


It is well known to the government that coal will continue to be the main energy source of our country for the coming several decades unless some huge deposit of gas and oil is found or some new invention takes place. Hence after independence in the slogan for self-sufficiency considerable emphasis was given for developing coalmines particularly in the Second Five Year Plan. After globalisation and the ‘Washington Consensus’ when foreign money was available on a large scale, instead of self-sufficiency imports became the way of coal supply as well. I remember when coal loading at the pit-head was being mechanised and loading workers in thousands were to be retrenched, I represented the case to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who told the then Chairman of Coal India Limited that if even in coal we can’t employ men then where was the industry of high employment generation for the general labour force? Now nobody takes care of employment, not even the trade unions; otherwise by importing coal we gave employment to lakhs of workers of foreign countries in the private sector but for the same thing we can’t agree in our own country despite there being huge unemployment in the coal belt.

Electricity from coal could have been cheaper had the thermal power stations, located thousands miles away from the coalmines, been situated near the coalmines. When a thermal power station was proposed in Muzaffarpur (Kanti) of Bihar, I suggested in the Bihar Assembly that it be located near the coalmines though the name of Muzaffarpur and some hands from Muzaffarpur could be there; this will save the cost of carrying coal from the mining area to Muzaffarpur. But this was opposed by the Muzaffarpur people and ultimately I had to yield. Our country is big and the transport cost is very high. When the Russian method of mining was successful in Assam, it was a welcome measure for that zone though it was abandoned later. Instead of transporting coal by rail wherever possible it should be done by sea.

As is known, the span of life has increased but the retirement age is more or less the same. A lot of illegal mining, either in abandoned mines where for reasons of cost pillars were not worked out or in the area where coal is available at very low depth, is going on; and then there are the slaughtered mines of the private sector carried out since the days before the nationalisation of coal. Through this illegal method even coking coal in the area of Giridih and Ranidih is extracted illegally and for brick burning or cooking ovens, even as we import coking coal at a high price. Many unemployed men die every month due to this sort of illegal mining. They can be saved if this is stopped. In China I was told that low-depth coal mining is given to panchayats for mining upto a certain depth with proper guidance. With retired hands, either in the cooperative or the panchayats, the same thing can be done in India. Banks can advance capital for this. This will increase coal supply to the rural areas to some extent.

IN the Jharia area underground fire is destroying our good quality coal for the last several decades. We are giving today over a lakh of rupees to sinking banks and financial institutions which misinvested or suffered losses in the share markets due to the present crisis; and the government is going ahead with the so-called liberalisation as suggested by the men in Washington who are themselves in a serious crisis. Our trade deficit is now $ 63.17 billion and fiscal deficit is Rs 116,890 crores.

But for introducing carbon sequestration to save at least carbon from burning in the Jharia underground we have had no money. The time has come when we should devise a scientific method to use the gas of the underground mines instead of the way we are working today due to which underground production is falling every year though in more than 300 metres depth we have so far a known deposit of 100 BT coal. For underground working, many methods, Chinese, German, Russian, Polish etc., have been experimented but these have not been found suitable. What is known as ‘continuous miner’ is most suitable and should be used on a mass scale.

Hand coal cutting has limitations but the failure on the part of the management is one of the main reasons for its unviability. Very often pick miners complain about shortage of working faces, what they call ‘Aatan’, and also of tubs due to which productivity is low in pick mining. When British managers were working before independence I saw in the Railway collieries (which later on became NCDC) British managers everyday in the first hours going underground but now Indian managers don’t do that. Work enforcement in the public sector has suffered substantially. This does not mean that the private sector is better: at least in the new coal blocks given to captive mining, that is, 182 coal blocks were given to them in the year 2007-08, and they could ensure only 21 MT out of the total production of 456 MT in the country.

As for the condition of mechanised coal cutting in quarries so far as machines are concerned, a large number of machines are always idle due to some defects. Corruption is prevailing on a large scale in the public sector. Even in mechanised loading for quarry workers, private trucks are preferred after some payment.

The target is fixed mechanically as per the Planning Commission target. This type of fixing target of production also helps negligence of underground mines. From open cast coal is easily extracted. Underground mines are more difficult for coal extraction. If the manager devotes some time for underground work he will fail to achieve the target which also affects his promotion etc. The target has to be fixed based on the situation of a particular colliery. There should be incentive for underground work too.

Coal needs a year of advance planning. To work out a new mine it requires four to five years. Working mines, particularly where sand stowing is needed, requires early advance planning. This is not done.

Substantial electricity can be generated from the biogas of sugarcane.
By developing solar energy, wind power, bio etc. the use of coal for domestic use as well as in agriculture, street lamps, if possible brick burning etc. should be reduced so that more coal is available for industry, particularly for generating electricity. Similarly more coal washeries should be there to meet the needs of coking coal.

Hydel power is cheaper than thermal. There is a big scope to have hydel power in small towns and hill areas but proper attention is not given to it. By generating hydel power in large proportion electricity can be made cheaper. Bhutan is cooperating in this regard. Nepal can also do a lot in this area.

The policy should be to reduce the consumption of exported oil replacing it by electricity and other indigenous energy like solar, wind, bio etc. to bring down the trade deficit and move towards self-sufficiency and save the country from the pollution of atmosphere.

Nuclear power is costly and more dependent on foreign help and cooperation. With France and Russia it is being negotiated. With the USA the Hyde Act and US Congress moves hurdles have been created. Through this agreement the US wants to control our foreign policy and make India its junior partner. In case of France and Russia the Hyde Act is not applicable nor is the decision of the US Congress; hence unhindered cooperation with them can take place.

We should not copy foreigners though suitable foreign technologies may be adopted. Imagine what would have happened to pensioners and provident fund recipients had these been allowed to be invested in the share market. Earlier I referred to solar, wind power, bio energy etc. These combined with renewal energy have great potentiality for employment and would save the atmosphere from pollution. According to a United Nations report, Germany’s $ 240 billion renewal energy industry employs 250,000 people. Britain plans to spend $ 100 billion on 7000 wind turbines. This way we too can create jobs for our huge jobless populace.

The author, who was the Union Agriculture Minister in the United Front Government at the Centre (1996-98), functioned as the AITUC President for several years.

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