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A group of women and children are seated in front of a poster on which a list is presented in Odiya language, while men stand at the back.
Odisha, India

When the Indian State of Odisha Phases Out Coal, Women Hope for a Just Energy Transition

Sabita Behera (name changed) sits on the threshold of her house, rolling tendu leaves (leaves of the East Indian Ebony tree) to make beedis (cigarettes) that stack up neatly at one end of her tray. Every day, she has to meet her daily target of a thousand such cigarettes, for which she receives Rs 130 at the nearby village market to supplement her husband’s wages as a contractual worker at a washery nearby. It is a hand-to-mouth existence.

In India, women are the most marginalized members of the communities dependent on coal mining. At first, when their homes and farms are acquired for a mine, they are deprived of rehabilitation packages offered by mining companies, as most of these are offered in lieu of land.

Entitlements of land are predominantly in the names of men. Inevitably, women also lose access to and control over natural resources and produce from common lands. The ban on women’s employment in underground coal mines in the 1920s historically restricted them from formal mining work. Though the ban was lifted in 2019, their condition remains much the same.

Their livelihood opportunities are minimal and they are mostly engaged in unpaid, underpaid and hazardous jobs in the coal economy. Women’s participation in the workforce in the working age group of 15-59 years is a mere 5% compared to 76% men in Angul district of Odisha.

In a policy brief on gender and transition, Suravee Nayak and Ashwini K Swain from the Initiative on Climate, Energy and Environment at the Centre for Policy Research said these pre-existing inequalities confine women to three categories: Social reproductive labor or ‘housewification’, formal but menial labor and casual labor engaged in coal scavenging.

“Women live very harsh lives here and struggle to make ends meet. Most are uneducated housewives and are financially dependent,” said Urmila Desury, a community worker in the coal mining areas of Angul. “If the coal mines were to go, there will be no jobs for us—we will not survive,” she said.

The world is not transitioning to clean energy fast enough to meet the targets of the 2015 Paris Agreement, according to a recent report by the US think tank Global Energy Monitor.

India’s commitments at the 2021 Glasgow climate summit (COP26) to reach Net Zero emissions by 2070 entail transitioning from coal, oil and gas to renewable energy in the coming years. This transition, however, needs to be a ‘just’ one that considers the needs of the most vulnerable and poorest sections of those dependent on the coal economy.

Mahanadi Coalfields Limited (MCL), a subsidiary of the state-owned Coal India Limited (CIL), operates eight mines here and employs 53,802 workers formally and informally in coal mining, according to the official data for 2021-2022.

Estimates of those directly dependent on coal and coal-based industries in Angul are far higher at 168,721. Although women constitute about half of the coal-dependent economy, they remain at the periphery, working either as unpaid care providers or as informal workers with low-paid menial jobs. Hence, they garner less experience and have little or no skill development for employment in the long run. Their poor educational status also inhibits them from securing good jobs.

The political economy of coal is entrenched in gender biases and injustices. Nayak and Swain explained that these are based on four structural barriers. For one, women have barriers to entry into the coal labor market. Secondly, they face distribution barriers with their lack of representation in skilled and secure jobs. In addition, those who work formally are challenged by wage barriers due to a gender-biased pay structure. Lastly, they have barriers in representation—weak representation of women in unions and executive positions leaves them in a poor bargaining position.

However, despite these barriers, women are also more adversely affected by the closing of mines. They have the least resources to cope and adapt, and as caregivers, they face the brunt of the loss of family income during this time.

Phasing out coal without transition planning can mean the loss of jobs, an increase in food insecurity and a plunge into abject poverty for a majority of the coal-dependent community. For women, who have been historically dispossessed, this would worsen unequal power relations at the household level and socio-economic backwardness.

With 52,550 million metric tons of coal resources, the Talcher region has the largest deposits of power-grade coal in the country. MCL is one of the most profitable units of CIL. District Vulnerability Assessments suggest that districts with higher coal production, like Angul, will be the last to transition from fossil fuels. 

The government of Odisha received coal royalties of over Rs 1,855 crore in the financial year 2020-21, according to the Union Ministry of Coal. This figure is speculated to rise exponentially as Angul steps up its production in the coming years. Production in Angul will peak in 2033 with a steep expansion of existing mines and the opening of new mines, according to a 2022 study. Following this, the district will gradually close down its mines and start phasing down by 2070. This offers time for planning and implementing transition strategies to ensure no one is left behind.

“Given their historical marginalization, women’s voices are muted in the public sphere and are less likely to find their way to public consultations,” said Nayak and Swain.

To ensure the representation of women in the just transition planning process, they suggested providing platforms through gram panchayats in the coal-dependent villages as they are constitutionally mandated to have women representation. They also suggested using existing women’s networks such as the Mission Shakti self-help groups. 

Odisha’s extensive network of women self-help groups with its links to schemes such as the Odisha Livelihood Mission can be harnessed to provide interim livelihood support to women and bring down their risks and vulnerabilities in this transition. 

Other state government schemes such as Mukhyamantri Karma Tatapara Abhiyan (MUKTA), which aims to provide employment opportunities to the urban poor, also have the potential to give work to the urban poor, who constitute 47 per cent of Talcher’s population.

“If the government provides schemes through Mission Shakti, it would boost the economic condition of women here. We need more income generation skills. Denge to karenge na [if they give us (skills) we will work],” said community worker Desury.

This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Down to Earth on June 23, 2023 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Banner image: Women in Angul, Odisha, protesting along with men for better compensation packages from mining companies / Credit: Jennifer Kishan.