India: At the coalface – by James Crabtree (Financial Times – March 31, 2015)

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Failure to boost energy supplies will hurt Modi’s goal of turning India into a manufacturing force

A large, colourfully painted sign hangs above the entrance to the depths of Jhanjra, the largest underground mine in West Bengal’s Raniganj coal belt. The left side shows Indian mining as it once was, with roughly drawn cartoon figures wielding basic shovels and carrying woven baskets of coal, balanced on their heads. The right paints a more modern scene, featuring large yellow mining machines, operated by skilled technicians.

Take the cage-like lift down hundreds of metres into the darkness below, and walk for nearly an hour through narrow tunnels in stifling heat, and that second image suddenly becomes real as a cutting vehicle with fierce rotating metal teeth, known as a continuous miner and built by US manufacturer Caterpillar, rips tonnes of black rock from the coal face.

Mining technologies such as these can help India stave off a looming energy crisis, argues Sutirtha Bhattacharya, chairman of state-backed miner Coal India, which runs Jhanjra, and produces roughly 80 per cent of the country’s coal. Energy demand in India is set to soar over the next two decades. But domestic supplies of coal, its dominant energy source, are barely increasing and India faces a future dogged by power cuts and reliant on expensive fuel imports.

“The fundamental objective of our country is that coal availability goes up, and there is 24/7 power for everyone,” says Mr Bhattacharya, describing his task in patriotic terms. It is a view his workers share. Deep underground, one miner says he isn’t worried about missing out on India’s cricket team, who at that moment are midway through a crucial contest in the sport’s World Cup. “If we don’t come down here, none of our countrymen will have power to watch the cricket [the national sporting obsession],” he says, wiping sweat off his forehead. “For us, coal mining is a mission for the nation.”

A ‘tall order’

Narendra Modi, prime minister, would surely agree. Coal provides more than half of his country’s energy and is set to remain its most important fuel source for decades, despite efforts to boost alternative power sources such as nuclear and renewables.

India will overtake the US to become the world’s second-largest coal consumer by 2025, going on to replace China as the dominant source of new global coal demand shortly afterwards. But without more coal, Mr Modi’s hopes of propelling his country towards economic superpower status are in jeopardy.

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