As India enters the monsoon months, the country is staring at yet another looming crisis and a possible strike could add to that
The scathing summer of 2022 left several parts of India sweating as cities and towns across the country witnessed long power cuts following an acute coal shortage. With power consumption climbing steadily post pandemic, coal continues to remain a central character in India's power story.
The very core of that character is currently shaky as 2,52,000 employees of Coal India Limited (CIL), the state-owned coal mining corporation, are looking at a strike to push for a wage hike.
Till date, trade unions like the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), Hind Mazdoor Sangh (HMS), Centre of Trade Unions and All India Trade Union Congress have held five rounds of meetings with the government over a span of a year.
What started off as a demand for a 50 per cent hike in salaries of Coal India employees has now been brought down to 47 per cent after Coal India offered a 3 per cent hike. But after the latest meeting on July 1 did not yield any concrete result, the BJP-backed Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh has warned of a strike in case of further delays.
The result could be devastating for the already weak power equation in the country as the production and supply of coal could see a considerable dent on the days of the strike.
Behind The Strike
The last time the salaries of Coal India workers were hiked was five years ago with the implementation of the 10th wage agreement.
Sudhir Ghurde, general secretary, BMS, says that the workers were anyway due for a hike following the 11th wage agreement that came into effect in July 2021 but is yet to be implemented. After failed talks with the authorities, the unions decided to write to coal minister Pralhad Joshi.
“Even during corona, when the entire nation was shut down, Coal India workers were carrying on (with) their duty as usual, risking their lives,” says Sudhir Ghurde, general secretary, BMS.
Pointing out how Coal India registered a 36 per cent growth, Ghurde asks, “When Coal India has reaped benefits from our (workers’) work, should it not be distributing it amongst its workers?”
Raghavan Raghunanadan, general secretary, Coal Field Mazdoor Union, an affiliate of HMS, says, “People will ask us, ‘Do the workers not have food to eat?’. Do Adani and Ambani not have food to eat? Then why do they need to expand their business? Why can Coal India workers not ask for a pay hike when everyone else can?”
The union leaders express that the strike is the last resort as they do not want to affect the country's economy. “Agreements are never easy. Workers have always fought for their rights respectfully and this time, we will put up a dignified fight. We will do demonstrations, if need be,” says Raghunandan.
Taking stock of the situation, the government said that Coal India aims to conclude the wage pact of its non-executive workforce at the earliest in a mutually agreeable manner.
“CIL maintains amicable and harmonious relations with its Unions and strives to avoid any discordance or strikes in view of the importance of the coal sector in the country. The negotiations are in progress and it usually takes time to conclude the pact,” it said in a press release on July 6.
The government also tried to draw attention to the fact that CIL was the first central public sector undertaking in the country to have successfully concluded the previous three wage agreements. “Keeping up this tradition, CIL hopes to quickly seal the wage pact this time as well,” it added.
Fears Of Blackout
In 2020, coal workers had launched a three-day strike to protest against the government’s move to allow commercial mining. The strike had disrupted coal production on all three days, as per a trade union leader.
"The three-day strike in coal industry is big success...In most of the mines (in the three days), production was nil and the dispatch was totally blocked," Nathu Pandey, president of HMS-affiliated Hind Khadan Mazdoor Federation, had told the media back then.
Two years later, the power shortage caused by coal paucity in India is graver with a constant increase in demand in the post-pandemic rush.
According to various news reports, India’s demand for electricity spiked to 124.2 billion units per month in 2021 from 106.6 billion units per month in 2019. In 2022, the demand further increased to 132 billion units because of the prolonged heatwave conditions across several parts of the country.
The increase in demand explains why even record production of coal is not being able to meet the needs. India’s coal production touched 777.26 million tonnes (MT) in FY22 as opposed to 716.08 MT in FY21—registering an increase of 8.54 per cent. It is also concerning to note that last year’s Central Electricity Authority (CEA) data revealed that 16 thermal power plants in India had no coal stock left. Add to that a concentrated push towards renewable energy to meet India’s green targets.
As India enters the monsoon months, the country is staring at another predicament. In its latest report titled 'Failure to load: India's power crisis is a coal management crisis', the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air has hinted at another power crisis owing to lower pre-monsoon coal stock at thermal power plants, in the months of July and August.
The CEA has also predicted a peak power demand of 214 gigawatts in August. Additionally, during the monsoon season, the mines get flooded and coal extraction becomes difficult which, in turn, affects its supply and would subsequently impact the power supply.
Against this backdrop, the Coal India workers’ strike, if staged, would come as a possible dampener and hit the coal supplies further, aggravating the power crisis.