COAL CRISIS IN INDIA: time to smell the coffee or simply import coal?
By Harshita Bajla
October 2021 marked a period of grave concern for the Indian population, with only 2-3 days of coal storage left to produce electricity via thermal power plants. Punjab, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and the union territory of Delhi faced power outages for several hours a day (1). While politicians, central ministers and state chief ministers were too busy to play the blame game, no one took accountability for perpetuating the use of a non-renewable source for a sustainable, long-term future. Excessive rainfall, the pandemic leading to lower production and high prices, and high electricity consumption during lockdown, did play a role, however, are these factors really the ones to blame?
India is known for annual natural floods and other calamities are unforeseeable, predicting no end to their occurrence.According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), coal-generated power plants account for around 70 percent of India’s electricity generation. The smart choice would be mostly switching into renewable energy, which should account for at least 60% of India’s electricity (2). The government has no one to blame but themselves. While other countries have gone green, India still sits on its throne of complacency. For instance, Costa Rica has produced 95% of its electricity from hydro, geothermal, solar and wind over the past 5-6 years (3). India’s neighbour, China has managed to install a larger amount of solar PV and wind capacity than any other country in 2017. If the world’s largest carbon emitter can also be a leader in renewable energy, then why cannot India even try?
It’s ironic that while several cities faced power shortage, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman stated that rumours of possible shortage of coal and power supplies are “absolutely baseless” (4) and is also said to have asserted during a trip to the U.S. that India is now a power-surplus country. Contrarily, in an interview, India's Power Minister RK Singh urged that the country must brace itself for the next few months (5). Likewise, Ms Zohra Chatterji, the former Chief of Coal India Limited stated that "Electricity powers everything, so the entire manufacturing sector–cement, steel, construction– everything gets impacted once there is a coal shortage." She asserted that this is a "wake-up call for India" (6), and that the time has come to reduce its over-dependence on coal and more aggressively pursue a renewable energy strategy. It is incongruous for government officials like the finance minister and power minister to have such contrasting stances. Is there really no accountability for something so great as the bright future of India?
Moving forward, India cannot live without coal. It is not completely possible to transition to 100% renewable energies overnight. However, there needs to be some transition to sustainable energies to manage the load of generating electricity for 1.4 billion people. Stocking up on and ensuring coal reserves at all times is a short-term solution. The long-term problems include grave financial costs, especially when coal has to be imported to maintain the demand of electricity powered by thermal power. Increased importation is likely to encourage inflation, especially when oil and food prices are already peaking.
Therefore, it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee. The government needs to initiate plans for long term sustainable energy that can cater to billions of Indians that trust them for a brighter future. Electricity is a staple, a basic but necessary amenity. Without it, darkness thrives, not only in front of our vision but also in our lives. Education, the workforce, health care, electric transportation, and so much more would plunge into darkness due to unreliable sources of energy and power shortages.