November 13, 2009

Fuel For Our Country

Filed under: Economics,Industry,Maharashtra — loggers @ 3:58 pm

The Vidarbha region in eastern Maharashtra, along with parts of Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Jharkhand, is extremely rich in natural resources, particularly coal and iron ore. Chandrapur, known as the “Black Diamond” city, has developed around these mines and is considered to be the most polluted city the world[1] – we could attest to that unenviable tag. We noticed the roads leading up to and from the city to be terrible, mainly a result of the umpteen trucks filled with coal, iron ore and timber (the Ballarpur paper mill is nearby) that ply these roads. Had rail connectivity been able to handle the volumes generated by these industries, maybe the situation wouldn’t have been so bad.

The underground coal mine we visited has been run by Coal India since 1968, which has confirmed reserves for the next 100 years. Most of the coal mined from here is used in the local industries and power plants. The site itself doesn’t seem to have changed in the last 40 years, and the elevator that took us down 170m wasn’t for the faint-hearted. Trolleys carrying the mined coal have dedicated tracks on both sides, with a narrow walking path through the middle. Communication with other workers on the site and managers above is done through an antiquated system (probably with some divine assistance, as shown below).

in spite of gods

In spite of the gods

The manager who took us around the mine declared that the quality of the coal was comparable to that mined in some of the best Australian sites, with high calorific content. However, the mine has been running losses for a few years now, mainly due to high operating costs. This can be attributed to lower productivity rates, both in labor and capital (limited technology use), essential components of the Solow growth model. We witnessed the laggard labor productivity first hand during the hour we spent in the mine, and the manager rightly lamented that the day’s tonnage target will probably not be met, yet again.

Coal mining is a very hazardous job and as a result daily wages can reach upto Rs.1000/day (compared to Rs.120/day for other labor). Health concerns such as asthma, bronchitis and life expectancy notwithstanding, this is a “get rich quickly” occupation, which was also apparent when we spoke with a young miner who said his life would be made after a few years. Incidentally, during our train ride to Patna this had come up in conversation with Chotey, and he mentioned that some of his friends work in these mines but he didn’t want to due to the health issues involved. India’s dependence on coal as a source of power[2] and the demands we will face is no secret. For the sake of uninterrupted industrialization, there is no knee-jerk solution to substituting this fossil fuel. However, this doesn’t absolve us of our responsibility to develop clean, renewable fuels so that coal could one day join the club of “has beens”.

[1] Its ppm level is 924 micrograms, compared to a normal/healthy level of 100 worldwide

[2] Coal based power plants contribute ~63% of India’s power requirements



  1. A large number of such mines were nationalized by the Government post independence. I am not sure if the government ever operated these mines, but it would be interesting if you could compare the condition of these mines (and miners) under both government and private employers. In fact, there could even be government mines in operation today, so you can get a time relevant comparison.

    Even in absence of such a comparison, where do you expect work conditions to be better?

    Comment by Yash — November 14, 2009 @ 4:51 pm | Reply

  2. Not sure what you mean by this. These mines have been run by Coal India (a PSU) since 1968 – so yes, the government has been operating them. We did not visit one operated by a private mining company, but yes, it could be an interesting comparison. A time relevant comparison would only be possible if we had data on how mines were operated back then.

    Comment by loggers — November 15, 2009 @ 11:35 pm | Reply

  3. man…what have i been missing. great stuff guys

    Comment by alok — November 18, 2009 @ 1:08 am | Reply

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