Congress MP Rahul Gandhi interacting with a coal worker in Jharkhand during Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra
Congress MP Rahul Gandhi interacting with a coal worker in Jharkhand during Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra File Photo: X/@TeamCongressINC

From Coal to Cleaner Energy: Examining Impact of India’s Green Transition on Marginalized Communities

A study by the National Foundation for India highlights that marginalized communities such as OBCs, SCs and STs constitute a substantial segment of the coal-dependent population in central India. These groups encounter educational, health and economic difficulties amid India’s shift from coal.

New Delhi: During Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra in Jharkhand earlier this year, he engaged with individuals who transport coal using motorcycles and bicycles. Though he might have not inquired about their castes, a report suggests a higher likelihood of them belonging to Other Backward Castes (OBC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) or Scheduled Castes (SC).

A recent study by the National Foundation for India (NFI) highlights the hardships faced by marginalized communities during India’s shift from coal to cleaner energy sources.

Titled ‘At the Crossroads: Marginalized Communities and the Just Transition Dilemma’, the report uncovers a concerning pattern: a notable overrepresentation of marginalized groups in regions dependent on coal.

Marginalized Communities in Coal-Dependent Regions

The report is based on surveys and focus group discussions across six districts in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha — encompassing 1,209 households.

One of the notable findings was the demographic composition of the surveyed population: 41.5% belonged to OBCs, 23% to STs and 17% to SCs.

In contrast, only 15.5% were from the general category. This underscores the heightened reliance on coal among marginalized communities.

Launch of the report in Delhi
Launch of the report in DelhiPhoto: NFI

Educational and Health Inequities Among Marginalized Groups

The study also highlights significant disparities in education and health within these communities. A considerable segment, particularly among SCs, STs and OBCs, faces limited access to education, with many having only primary education or lacking literacy altogether. This educational deficit poses a formidable obstacle as India transitions away from coal.

Health risks associated with coal mining are another pressing concern. A substantial majority (75%) of participants in focus group discussions reported respiratory and skin ailments linked to prolonged exposure to coal pollutants, including chronic bronchitis, asthma and various skin conditions.

Economic Strain and Social Inequities: Impact of Caste Disparities

The phase-out of coal is expected to wield a substantial economic impact, especially in regions reliant on coal. Job losses will affect not just coal miners directly but also the broader local economy, which depends on coal-related services. The report cautions that these economic repercussions will disproportionately affect marginalized communities.

Moreover, caste-based disparities exacerbate these challenges. The study reveals skewed access to resources and opportunities, with marginalized communities significantly disadvantaged compared to the General category.

Cover photo of the report
Cover photo of the reportCredit: NFI

Navigating Challenges: Recommendations for an Equitable Transition

The report identifies several obstacles to achieving a “just transition”, which aims to minimize adverse impacts on vulnerable populations. Key challenges include:

1. Upskilling an under-educated workforce — Many workers lack adequate education for transitioning to new industries.

2. Creating alternative livelihoods — There is a need to develop new job opportunities for those displaced from the coal sector.

The report stresses the importance of:

1. Community-specific policies: Tailoring policies to address the unique needs and vulnerabilities of marginalized communities.

2. Robust institutional mechanisms: Strengthening institutions to effectively deliver essential services and support programs.

3. Coordinated efforts: Collaborating across government bodies to facilitate a smooth transition.

The report proposes a framework to safeguard these communities, including:

- Developing alternative livelihoods: Promoting new economic activities beyond coal mining.

- Ecological restoration: Addressing the environmental impacts of coal mining to mitigate health risks.

- Inclusive policies: Designing transition policies that prioritize the needs of marginalized groups.

Vulnerability of Communities and the Urgent Need for Action

The study underscores significant social and economic disparities in coal-dependent regions. For instance, districts heavily reliant on coal production, such as Dhanbad (Jharkhand) and Koriya (Chhattisgarh), reported lower incomes compared to more diversified districts like Angul (Odisha).

The report also highlights inadequate access to basic welfare schemes, intensifying the vulnerability of these communities.

Pooja Gupta, co-author of the study, cautioned, “Without a well-defined strategy, workers in declining sectors may face abrupt job losses without sufficient support or alternative employment options.”

The report’s central message is the pressing need for action. 

NFI Executive Director Biraj Patnaik emphasized, “The findings underscore stark caste-based inequalities in access to education and livelihood opportunities in coal-dependent areas.”

He stressed the urgency of implementing “community-specific policies and robust institutional frameworks” to tackle these challenges effectively.

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