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And…Coal on the face!

Aug 28, 2017

From the opium trade to the arrival of railways and mishandling of the politico-economy, resulting into a missed opportunity of optimally tapping our own reserves and energy insecurity! India’s coal saga is a fascinating but murky history and literally an egg on the face of governance.

Quite like the previous author-audience interaction, it piggybacked too – though this time on a single book – India’s Coal Story. The issues discussed at the British Empire’s then second most important city after London – Calcutta – ranged from the encephalitis breakout in Gorakhpur, nuclear power, Fukushima, clean energy, social causes and millennials beginning to question ethics of parental professions and businesses.

Subhomoy Bhattacharjee, in this scholarly work, bares the sinews of imperialism – how it manifests itself by drawing energy from coal, with both intended and unintended consequences. The centrepiece being implications for governance or lack thereof in the running of an independent India and the burgeoning corporate culture.

The discovery of coal deposits by British geologists along the right bank of the Damodar river in Bengal coincided with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, points out Subhomoy. Heavy exploitation commenced only after a hiatus of 50 years thanks to a flourishing opium trade, he says. Rabindranath Tagore’s grandfather Dwarkanath Tagore “positioned himself neatly in the East Asian opium triangle that the British built. The opium was manufactured at Ghazipur in Uttar Pradesh, transported by Ganga to the ships from Calcutta from where it was shipped to China. The cargo was opium, the fuel was coal and Tagore ran the largest coal business in the country”, to quote Subhomoy.

There was a slump in the demand for coal as the opium trade fizzled out. “Decades later, as the theatre turned to West Asia, interest in coal revived. In the late nineteenth century, Britain and Russia began a fight to control the oil wells of Asia, including Persia. The Indian colony of Britain stepped in to play a crucial supporting hand in this game. The viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, raced to build a pan-Indian network of railways to transport troops and supplies to the possible war fields of Asia. The railways needed coal to run and so begun the second phase of interest in India’s energy game”.

Interestingly, according to Subhomoy, “The business exploded as a new industrial group from Bombay stepped into the cocktail. It was led by Sir Jamsetji Tata’s son, Sir Dorabji Tata, with an extensive interest in the business of steel and consequently of coal to smelt that steel”.

“India’s coal reserves have always proved to be too hot to handle for its governments. It owns the fourth largest reserves in the world. It should have provided a first-class opportunity to keep the economy driving ahead at full speed; it has instead been its first-class curse”, he goes on to observe.

” As the state repeatedly failed to develop the coal mines adequately to provide for the fuel needs of companies, Indian industry was gradually forced to look abroad to source coal on the banks of another river, this time in Africa, Zambezi in Mozambique to deposits of Australia and Indonesia. It is possible that by 2018, every third tonne of coal used in India could come across the seas. That creates a mighty challenge for the energy security of the nation“, predicts Subhomoy.

Unless a renewable source of energy appears dramatically and assumes a sustainable viability, thermal power will remain a major driver of Indian economy for a very long time. India’s Coal Story should be a handy mirror to anyone who wishes not to mess up a critical lifeline of an aspiring superpower. Needless to mention, several lessons for all those wishing not to repeat the risk of governance lapses irrespective of what profession they practise.

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