In coal-rich Jharkhand, frequent power outages derail lives and jobs

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As part of his wedding preparations, Vijay Rajak had a bathroom added to his home so his wife wouldn’t have to walk miles to a lake like other women in her village in the coal state from eastern India, Jharkhand.

He connected the bathroom faucet to a storage tank powered by an electric water pump, but his efforts were stymied by frequent power cuts in his village, which also hit other parts of the country. India amid a heatwave-induced electricity crisis over the past month.

Extreme heat in India has driven electricity consumption to unprecedented levels, with people turning up their air conditioning, causing widespread blackouts since April as utilities scrambled to keep up with demand amid dwindling coal supply.

Residents of Jharkhand say the lack of electricity is unfair to their state, whose coal reserves light up major cities and power the country’s industries.

“There is an open pit coal mine on what was once my land – and yet we have no power for 10 hours or more,” said Rajak, 30. Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from the village of Surunga in the district of Dhanbad, the coal capital of India.

“We’ve been burning in this pollution for years because of the coal mine, but we haven’t gained anything,” he said. “All I wanted was for my wife to feel comfortable and be able to take a bath at home.”

State dependency

Jharkhand is one of India’s poorest states and also one of its major coal producers, with 150 mines. Coal powers more than 70% of the country’s electricity generation – yet residents of this coal-rich region complain that frequent blackouts derail their lives and work.

Jharkhand Electricity Commission officials said the region has enough power to meet peak summer demand of about 2,600 megawatts from central, private and public power utilities. Similar outages were recorded in other parts of India last month when demand peaked, they added.

KK Verma, Managing Director of Jharkhand State Power Distribution Company, Jharkhand Bijli Vitran Nigam Limited, attributed the power cuts to local conditions such as thunderstorms and old overhead power lines and conductors which require expensive upgrades.

As long as Jharkhand gets its full allocation from central power companies, there is no power shortage in the state, he noted. Analysts said that reliance is at the heart of the state’s power shortage, as generation nationwide has been unable to meet demand, in part due to severe coal shortages.

Loaders in an open cast coal mine in Dhanbad. Photo credit: AFP

“Jharkhand has not added a single megawatt of electricity in two decades and is buying power from thermal power plants in other states which have their own priorities,” said Nivit Kumar Yadav, program director for pollution. industry at the Center for Science and Environment.

The state hopes its two planned coal-fired power plants – one of which is expected to start operating within the next six months – will solve its problems. But analysts said it could be a misplaced step as the world turns to renewables.

“On a warming planet, as electricity consumption soars with heat waves hitting more and more cities, Jharkhand must plan for its future now,” said researcher Yadav, noting that plans State currents will fuel the growing demand for coal.

“Jharkhand needs to change its mindset that it is ‘coal-rich’,” he added. “The just transition of the state must start now.”

Diesel dilemma

A socially equitable shift towards a greener energy model seems a long way off in most parts of India whose local economies rely on the coal industry.

People living in coal mining centers face multiple challenges, from air and water pollution to water scarcity and poor infrastructure.

In Jharkhand, where more than 40% of its 3.3 million people are poor, power outages are the biggest obstacle to development, residents said.

According to a 2020 analysis by the Energy, Environment and Water Council, about 80% of households in the state experienced at least one power outage per day, lasting up to eight hours – twice as long as those recorded in other coal-rich countries. States like Chhattisgarh and Odisha.

Uninterrupted power has been a promise in polls for years and features prominently in current campaigns for village council elections, but there has been little progress on the ground, residents said.

“We are the coal capital and we have no electricity,” said Dhanbad resident Sanoj Singh, who blamed the power cuts on losses at his construction company. “It’s like owning a dairy farm and you don’t even get half a liter of milk.”

Generators are in high demand in Dhanbad, fueling concerns over diesel consumption. “A 5 kg generator that can power an entire house consumes 1.5 liters of diesel per hour. We know that generators cause harmful emissions, but how [otherwise] do people survive the heat? asked Paras Yadav, who rents generators in Dhanbad.

Pandemic outbreak

Household electricity connections in Jharkhand have soared to 50 lakh in the past three years from 30 lakh, thanks to state programs to electrify rural areas and the return of several hundred thousand migrants from cities during the Covid-19 closures, some of which remained, officials said.

This has boosted demand for electricity, even as a large portion of new consumers cannot afford to pay their bills.

About 25 lakh of power connections are owned by very poor people in semi-urban and remote villages, where demand from cottage industries is high but income generation is low largely due to billing and payment issues, officials said.

Jharkhand – which like other states, including even the wealthiest, owes billions of rupees in arrears to power generation companies – has covered enough of its dues this year to maintain its supply, officials said .

The power connections have helped many people like Ruby Mahto, 32, a farmer from East Singhbhum district, about 200 km north of Dhanbad. She connected a water pump to a well to irrigate her one-acre farm two years ago, but now has to drag buckets of water with ropes as power cuts have left her pump inactive.

“We wait for the power all day and the minute we connect the hose to the pump, the power stops,” she said. Rajak’s wife, Basanti Kumari, 25, meanwhile, is grateful that her husband’s village still has a better electricity supply than his parents’ in the steel-making center of Bokaro.

Yet her days are busier than ever, as she grinds spices on stone and fills containers with water for cooking and cleaning before walking more than a mile to bathe, unable to use her electrical equipment when the current drops.

“It’s so hot that we can’t even do without taking a bath,” she said. “I have to be careful of the people around. What choice do I have?”

This article first appeared on Thomson Reuters Foundation News.

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