As part of his wedding preparations, Vijay Rajak had a bathroom added to his house so that his wife wouldn’t have to walk miles to a lake like other women from his village in the east Indian coal state of Jharkhand. He connected the bathroom tap to a storage tank powered by an electric water pump, but his effort was scuppered by frequent power outages in his village, which have also hit other parts of India amid a heatwave-driven power crisis over the past month. Extreme heat in India pushed up electricity use to unprecedented highs with people cranking up their air-conditioning, causing widespread power cuts since April as utilities scrambled to meet demand amid dwindling coal supplies. Jharkhand locals say the lack of power is unfair on their state, whose coal reserves light up big cities and power the nation’s industries.
“There is an open-cast coal mine on what was once my land – and yet we don’t have power for 10 hours or more,” Rajak, 30, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Surunga village in Dhanbad district, India’s coal capital.
“We have been burning in this pollution for years because of the coal mine, but haven’t gained anything. All I wanted was for my wife to feel comfortable and to be able to take a bath at home,” he said.
Jharkhand is one of India’s poorest states and also among its top coal producers, with 150 mines.
Coal fuels over 70 per cent of the country’s electricity generation – and yet inhabitants of this coal-rich region complain that frequent power blackouts are derailing their lives and work.
Jharkhand electricity board officials said the region has sufficient power to meet peak summer demand of about 2,600 megawatts from federal, private and state-owned power utilities.
Similar outages were experienced in other parts of India last month when demand peaked, they added.
K.K. Verma, managing director of the Jharkhand state power distribution company, JBVNL, attributed the power cuts to local conditions such as thunderstorms and old overhead power lines and conductors that need costly upgrades. As long as Jharkhand gets its full allocation from central power companies, there is no electricity shortage in the state, he noted.
Analysts said this dependence is at the heart of the state’s power crunch, as national-level generation has been unable to keep up with demand, partly due to severe coal shortages.
“Jharkhand has not added a single megawatt of power in two decades and has been buying power from thermal plants in other states that have their own priorities,” said Nivit Kumar Yadav, programme director for industrial pollution at the Centre for Science and Environment.
The state hopes its two planned thermal coal power plants – one set to start operating in the next six months – will solve its problems.
But analysts said that could be a misplaced step when the wider world is moving to renewable energy.
“On a heating planet, as power consumption is soaring with heatwaves gripping more cities, Jharkhand must plan for its future now,” said researcher Yadav, pointing out that the state’s current plans will feed rising demand for coal.
“Jharkhand has to change its mindset that it is ‘coal-rich’. The state’s just transition must start now,” he added.
A socially fair shift to a greener energy model appears to be some way off in most parts of India whose local economies rely on the coal industry.
People living in coal-mining hubs battle multiple challenges, from air and water pollution to water scarcity and poor infrastructure. In Jharkhand, where more than 40 per cent of its 33 million people are poor, power outages are the biggest barrier to development, locals said.
According to a 2020 analysis by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, about 80 per cent of households in the state experienced at least one power cut a day, lasting for up to eight hours – twice as long as those recorded in other coal-rich states like Chhattisgarh and Odisha.
Uninterrupted power supply has been a poll promise for years, featuring heavily in current campaigns for village council elections, but there has been little progress on the ground, locals said.
“We are the coal capital and we don’t have power. This is like owning a dairy farm and you are not getting even half a litre of milk,” said Dhanbad resident Sanoj Singh, who blamed power cuts for losses in his construction business.
Generators are in huge demand in Dhanbad, fuelling worries about diesel consumption.
“A 5 kg generator that can power an entire house consumes 1.5 litres of diesel per hour. We know generators cause harmful emissions but how (otherwise) do people survive the heat?” asked Paras Yadav, who rents out generators in Dhanbad.
Household power connections in Jharkhand have shot up to 5 million in the past three years from 3 million, thanks to state schemes to electrify rural areas and the return of several hundred thousand migrants from cities during Covid-19 lockdowns, some of whom stayed, officials said. That has boosted power demand, even as a large share of new consumers cannot afford to pay bills. About 2.5 million power connections belong to very poor people in semi-urban and remote villages, where there is high demand from cottage industries but revenue generation is low largely because of billing and payment issues, said officials. Jharkhand – which, like other states including even rich ones, owes billions of rupees in back payments to power generation companies – covered enough of its dues this year to maintain its supply, officials said.
Power connections have helped many like Ruby Mahto, 32, a farmer in 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 lying idle.
“We wait for power all day and the minute we connect the pipe to the pump, the power snaps,” she said.
Rajak’s wife Basanti Kumari, 25, meanwhile, is thankful that her husband’s village still has a better power supply than her parents’ in the steel manufacturing hub of Bokaro.
Yet her days are busier than ever, as she grinds spices on stone and fills water containers for cooking and cleaning before walking over a mile to bathe, unable to use her electrical equipment when the power drops out.
“It is so hot so we can’t even skip taking a bath. I have to be careful with people around. What choice do I have?” she said.
By Roli Srivastava