India’s shrinking coal jobs fuel ‘distress’ migration to cities, Energy News, ET EnergyWorld

India's shrinking coal jobs fuel 'distress' migration to cities

SRIPERUMBUDUR/MUMBAI: S hashikant Midha learned to swim as a child in the river near his village in Dhanbad, one of India’s largest coal-mining hubs, but he hasn’t yet found time to dip in the pool at the apartment complex where he lives nowadays, far away in south India.

Working long hours on a car-assembly line in Tamil Nadu state, more than 1,700 km (1,056 miles) from home, Midha belongs to a trend of Indians migrating out of coal regions, triggered by dwindling and low-paying jobs in a changing industry.

At least 13 million Indians in the poorest regions depend on the country’s coal ecosystem for a living, research from the non-profit National Foundation for India (NFI) shows.

But many of them risk losing their jobs and incomes as India starts to move away from climate-heating coal towards clean energy this decade, said a 2021 report from the NFI, a philanthropic organisation focused on social justice.

Benoy Peter, executive director at the Kochi-based Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development, said coal-mine closures are adding to the burden of unemployment in rural areas as jobs in the coal industry shrink.

“If these opportunities also diminish – and considering the impact of climate change – migration is the only way for people who are in distress,” he said. “It is their only hope.”

Midha, 26, thought the same when he left home after his father retired as a loader at a colliery in Dhanbad in eastern Jharkhand state five years ago – a job he got in lieu of family land that was lost to mining.

Neither Midha nor his brother have any prospect of finding employment at the same company, Coal India, which is increasingly outsourcing work and changed its rules on parents passing on jobs to their children more than three decades ago.

Just back from a night shift on a Sunday morning, sitting in his sparsely furnished two-bedroom rented flat in the auto-manufacturing hub of Sriperumbudur, Midha said he had initially been “scared to leave home and travel so far”.

But the lack of local jobs and a plummeting economy in his village – where his elder brother runs a small cosmetics shop and takes care of his ageing parents – left him with no options.

“Everything is going downhill in my village after many mines shut down,” Midha told the Thomson Foundation. “There is despair and uncertainty. Migration has become a necessity.”


India is the world’s fastest-growing economy and will soon be named its most populous country, with the United Nations forecasting the South Asian nation’s population will touch 1.43 billion people on April 14, overtaking China on that day.

It is due to top 1.5 billion by 2036, with urban growth accounting for about three-quarters of the total population increase as migration rises, according to government forecasts.

Despite the advances India has made – from higher literacy rates to spreading mobile phone use – it lags on indicators like women’s participation in the labour force and is among the most vulnerable to climate-change impacts that hit the poor hardest.

Worsening extreme weather has pushed up migration numbers in India, with 4.9 million cases of displacement in 2021 alone due to disasters, mainly floods and cyclones, according to a global research body that maps data on the problem.

In addition, the looming energy transition away from coal towards renewables like solar is pushing more people to move to cities in India, which have yet to develop a plan to help them.

Against a backdrop of surging energy needs from its growing population, India has set ambitious goals for renewables, while firmly stating that coal-based power supply continues to be needed to ensure reliable electricity across the country.

While mines with depleting coal reserves are being shut, India is at the same time expanding still-productive sites and even opening new ones to meet rising energy demand.

Even in places where mining continues, local residents like the Midha family are being alienated and pushed out, turning them into “energy migrants” struggling to find jobs.

Unemployment is increasing as companies turn to mechanisation and prefer outsourcing their work to contractors, leaving impoverished locals with very low income possibilities.

“The impact of young men migrating is already being felt by the next generation back home,” said Umesh Kumar Turi, an education campaigner in Jharkhand.

Water shortages in coal hubs are another driver as they grapple with water-table depletion linked to the industry and erratic rainfall patterns, damaging the prospects for any revival in agriculture, said migration expert Peter.

“Since these regions have higher youth numbers, unemployment will substantially increase,” he said, noting they have higher fertility rates than industrial states like Tamil Nadu.

The number of inter-state migrants like Midha is estimated at about 100 million, according to labour economists and India’s economic survey, with wider consequences across families.

“As migration of men increases, women are taking up work as domestic helps to supplement family income and there is no one looking after the children, some of whom are taking up odd jobs themselves or dropping out,” said Turi.


Sriperumbudur – often called India’s Detroit because of its hundreds of vehicle and auto-part manufacturing units – is home to thousands of migrants from coal-rich states like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Odisha, though their exact numbers are unknown.

These migrant workers often remain invisible, even though their skills are key to the manufacturing, construction and hospitality industries. Most work in the informal sector, without a steady employer, fixed wages or social security.

Midha remembers standing outside the gates of car factories, hustling for his first job. Five years on, he still has to renew his contract every six months, losing several days’ pay each time.

“All of us are very aware that companies will easily find a replacement for us,” said Midha, who started working after high school.

His flat-mate, 22-year-old Anand Kumar Turi, did a computer course, hoping it would get him a job closer to home in Jharkhand. Instead, he works at a company manufacturing scooter seats.

“Many of our friends tried hard, graduated from college hoping for a break. But even they call us asking if there are any jobs here because they are struggling to make the 15,000 rupees ($181.52) we earn every month,” he said.

The young men brought nothing with them from home, not even their favourite pickles, fearing they would spoil on the long train journey.

They have collectively learned to cook and negotiate the streets of Sriperumbudur, where the climate is warmer, food tangier and language unknown.

Despite being away from their families, they appreciate the clean air, wide roads and development in the auto hub, a far cry from the pollution and poverty of Jharkhand.

Yet they see no future for themselves in Sriperumbudur.

“My parents want me to get married, but how can I?” asked Midha. “We have no savings. And we can’t live here all our lives. This is not our home.”