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A woman carries a basket of coal scavenged from a mine near Dhanbad, an eastern Indian city in Jharkhand state.
A woman carries a basket of coal scavenged from a mine near Dhanbad, an eastern Indian city in Jharkhand state. Even as the world tries to move away from coal to fight climate change, many in Dhanbad depend on it for their lives.
Altaf Qadri / AP

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‘Nothing else here’: why it’s so hard for the world to quit coal

Consider India’s Jharkhand state — among the poorest in that nation and the one with the largest coal reserves. It’s also the most vulnerable Indian state to climate change.

DHANBAD, India — Every day, Raju gets on his bicycle and unwillingly pedals the world a tiny bit closer to climate catastrophe.

Every day, he straps half a dozen sacks of coal pilfered from mines — as much as 440 pounds — to the reinforced metal frame of his bike. Driving mostly at night to avoid the police and the heat, he transports the coal 10 miles to traders who pay him $2.

Thousands of others do the same.

This has been Raju’s life since he arrived in Dhanbad, an eastern Indian city in Jharkhand state in 2016. Floods in his home region have decimated traditional farm jobs. Coal is all he has.

Earth desperately needs people to stop burning coal, the biggest single source of greenhouse gases, to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change — including the intense flooding that’s cost agricultural jobs in India.

But people rely on coal. It’s the world’s biggest source of fuel for electric power. And so many, desperate like Raju, depend on it for their lives.

Mining in progress at an open-cast mine near Dhanbad, an eastern Indian city in Jharkhand state.
Mining in progress at an open-cast mine near Dhanbad, an eastern Indian city in Jharkhand state.
Altaf Qadri / AP

“The poor have nothing but sorrow ... but so many people, they’ve been saved by coal,” Raju says.

The United Nations has pushed for what the United Kingdom’s Alok Sharma has described as the moment whne coal is left “in the past where it belongs.”

That might be possible for some developed nations. But it isn’t that simple for developing countries, which say they should be allowed the “carbon space” to grow as developed nations have: by burning cheap fuels like coal, which is used in industrial processes such as steelmaking as well as electric power generation.

On average, the typical American uses 12 times more electricity than the typical Indian. There are more than 27 million people in India who don’t have electricity at all.

Power demand in India is expected to grow faster than anywhere in the world over the next two decades as its economy grows and ever more extreme heat increases demand for air conditioning that much of the rest of the world takes for granted.

Meeting that demand won’t fall to people like Raju but to Coal India, already the world’s largest miner, which aims to increase production to over one billion tons a year by 2024.

“Coal has continued for 100 years,” says D.D. Ramanandan, secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions in Ranchi. “Workers believe it will continue to do so.”

Unless the world drastically cuts greenhouse gas emissions, the planet will suffer even more extreme heat waves, erratic rainfall and destructive storms, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

An Indian government study this year found that Jharkhand state — among the poorest in India and the one with the nation’s largest coal reserves — is also the most vulnerable Indian state to climate change.

But there are roughly 300,000 people working directly with government-owned coal mines, getting fixed salaries and benefits. And there are nearly four million people in India whose livelihoods are directly or indirectly linked to coal, according to Sandeep Pai, who studies energy security and climate change at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Indian laborers load coal into a truck in Dhanbad.
Indian laborers load coal into a truck in Dhanbad.
Altaf Qadri / AP
A man climbs a ridge with a basket of coal scavenged from a mine near Dhanbad.
A man climbs a ridge with a basket of coal scavenged from a mine near Dhanbad.
Altaf Qadri / AP

India’s coal belt is dotted by industries like steel and brick-making that need the fuel. Railways, the country’s largest employers, get half their revenue by transporting coal, subsidizing passenger travel.

“Coal is an ecosystem,” Pai says.

For Naresh Chauhan, 50, and his wife Rina Devi, 45, the economic slowdown in India that’s resulted from the coronavirus pandemic has only intensified their dependence on coal. They’ve lived in a village at the edge of the Jharia coalfield in Dhanbad all their lives. Accidental fires, some blazing for decades, have charred the ground and left it spongey. Smoke hisses from cracks in the surface near their hut. Deadly sinkholes are common.

A young woman holds a torch in her mouth as she collects coal from a mine near Dhanbad.
A young woman holds a torch in her mouth as she collects coal from a mine near Dhanbad.
Altaf Qadri / AP

They make $3 a day selling four baskets of scavenged coal to traders.

Families who’ve lived amid coal mines for generations rarely own any land they can farm and have nowhere else to go. Chauhan hopes his son will learn to drive so that he, at least, can get away.

With the pandemic leaving less work for the city’s taxi drivers and fewer travelers coming to the city, he says, “There is just coal, stone and fire. Nothing else here.”

That could mean even harder times for the people in Dhanbad as the world eventually turns away from coal. Pai says this already is happening as renewable energy gets cheaper, and coal becomes less profitable.

A laborer takes a break from loading coal into a truck in Dhanbad.
A laborer takes a break from loading coal into a truck in Dhanbad.
Altaf Qadri / AP

India and other countries with coal-dependent regions need to diversify their economies and retrain workers, he says — to protect workers’ livelihoods and to help speed the transition from coal by offering new opportunities.

Otherwise, more will end up like Murti Devi, 32,a single mother of four. She lost the job she had all her life when the mine she worked for closed four years ago. Nothing came of the resettlement plans promised by the coal company, so she, like many others, turned to scavenging coal. On good days, she says, she makes a dollar. Other days, she relies on neighbors for help.

“If there is coal, then we live,” Devi says. “If there isn’t any coal, then we don’t live.”

A truck loaded with coal drives past a freight train carrying coal at Chainpur village near Hazaribagh in India’s eastern state of Jharkhand.
A truck loaded with coal drives past a freight train carrying coal at Chainpur village near Hazaribagh in India’s eastern state of Jharkhand.
Altaf Qadri / AP
A boy stands next to small pile of coal burning after scavenging from an open-cast mine near Dhanbad.
A boy stands next to small pile of coal burning after scavenging from an open-cast mine near Dhanbad.
Altaf Qadri / AP
Laborers load coal onto trucks near Dhanbad.
Laborers load coal onto trucks near Dhanbad.
Altaf Qadri / AP
Smoke hisses from the cracks in the ground as a villager holds his child in front of houses damaged due to subsidence near Dhanbad.
Smoke hisses from the cracks in the ground as a villager holds his child in front of houses damaged due to subsidence near Dhanbad.
Altaf Qadri / AP
A woman carries a basket of coal scavenged from a mine near Dhanbad.
A woman carries a basket of coal scavenged from a mine near Dhanbad.
Altaf Qadri / AP
Members of coal workers’ community fetch drinking water from a pipe at a coal depot near an open-caste mine in Dhanbad.
Members of coal workers’ community fetch drinking water from a pipe at a coal depot near an open-caste mine in Dhanbad.
Altaf Qadri / AP
A washerman uses coal to heat irons in Dhanbad.
A washerman uses coal to heat irons in Dhanbad.
Altaf Qadri / AP
Naresh Chauhan, 50, and his wife Rina Devi, 45, fill sacks with coal in Dhanbad. They make $3 a day selling four baskets of scavenged coal to traders.
Naresh Chauhan, 50, and his wife Rina Devi, 45, fill sacks with coal in Dhanbad. They make $3 a day selling four baskets of scavenged coal to traders.
Altaf Qadri / AP
Flames rise out of the fissures in the ground above coal mines in the village of Liloripathra near Dhanbad.
Flames rise out of the fissures in the ground above coal mines in the village of Liloripathra near Dhanbad.
Altaf Qadri / AP
Restaurants along a food street use coal hearths in Dhanbad.
Restaurants along a food street use coal hearths in Dhanbad.
Altaf Qadri / AP
Murti Devi, who scavenges coal for living, prepares a hearth fueled by coal at a village near Dhanbad, an eastern Indian city in Jharkhand state, Friday, Sept. 24, 2021. The 32-year-old single mother of four lost the job she had all her life when the mine she worked for closed four years ago. Nothing came of the resettlement plans promised by the coal company so she, like so many others, turned to scavenging coal. On good days, she’ll make a dollar. On other days, she relies on neighbors for help. “If there is coal, then we live. If there isn’t any coal, then we don’t live,” she said.
Murti Devi, who scavenges coal for living, prepares a hearth fueled by coal at a village near Dhanbad, an eastern Indian city in Jharkhand state, Friday, Sept. 24, 2021. The 32-year-old single mother of four lost the job she had all her life when the mine she worked for closed four years ago. Nothing came of the resettlement plans promised by the coal company so she, like so many others, turned to scavenging coal. On good days, she’ll make a dollar. On other days, she relies on neighbors for help. “If there is coal, then we live. If there isn’t any coal, then we don’t live,” she said.
Altaf Qadri / AP

Contributing: Shonal Ganguly, Altaf Qadri

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