Coal for national development in India: Transforming landscapes and social relations in the quest for energy security

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


    In India, coal is much more than just a fossil fuel, a mere commodity in the nation’s power supply. I have previously argued that coal is seen as key to the country’s sovereignty as a nation-state; is equivalent to modernity; and is crucial for an energy secure future for India (Lahiri-Dutt 2014a). At the same time, mining was arguably the earliest (and possibly the key) agent of transformation of landscapes and social relations in the coal-bearing regions of the country. As it charts new pathways into lands that have so far been claimed by indigenous communities (Adivasis, the original inhabitants, or known officially as the Scheduled Tribes), coal continues to redefine lands and social relations, making new territories and new worlds. This raises the question: Is the meaning of coal the same for the nation and the people? And what shapes these meanings? If the meanings of coal are not the same, then would it be possible to imagine more than one economy of coal in India? In this chapter I argue that there are multiple coal economies, which are intricately interlinked with local and national politics of resources and identities, each drawing upon different notions of mining, morality, and the material values of coal, in turn defining these meanings and values through a logic that is unique to each of them. The different coal economies transform the landscapes and social relations of the coalproducing regions in dramatic ways in the quest for national energy security. I argue that the state-owned enterprise, Coal India Limited (CIL), represents the ‘national coal’ economy; the private entrepreneur-owned collieries producing coal that is captive to power plants represent the ‘neoliberal coal’ economy; the non-legal small-scale mines in India’s northeast produce ‘statecraft coal’; and last, but not the least, the innumerable poor, spread throughout India’s coal-bearing tracts, illegally produce ‘subsistence coal’. Each of these economies has different labour and resource regimes, and varying degrees of formal recognition that give rise to confusion over whether they are really four or five economies (or possibly even more ‘sub-economies’ hidden within the four identified so far). The production of four different coals from these diverse collieries, and the various actors, their interests and (sometimes conflicting) norms and values, make up the diverse worlds of coal in India. This chapter highlights the complex links between these economies, and the people who build them through their work. By doing so, it brings to light the intricate and dynamic relationships between people and coal, and situates the various ways in which this form of resource extraction transforms landscapes and social relations within the context of India’s history and current economic growth trajectory. To help understand these multiple economies of coal in India, I argue that coal as a mineral resource is not only a material thing but is co-produced by its utilitarian values of meeting the perceived needs of Indian society at given points in time.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationIndustrializing Rural India: Land, policy and resistance
    Editors Kenneth Bo Nielsen and Patrik Oskarsson
    Place of PublicationLondon and New York
    ISBN (Print)978-1-138-93671-3
    Publication statusPublished - 2017


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