By-K Yatish Rajawat
It’s not often that you come across a book that presents all the research you need about a subject without being didactic and dense, especially something that many comment about, but very few understand. Coal occupies a central role in every discussion on energy policy, as it meets the bulk of India’s energy requirement. Unfortunately, coal as an industry is not considered important enough for researchers. It has, in the recent past, captured the national narrative only because of the scams and the cancellation of coal mines that followed.
Even during the height of discussion around the coal scam, its role in the future energy needs of the country was rarely discussed. Its role in energy policy is even less discussed publicly. Which is why Subhomoy Bhattacharjee’s book is so important and a must-read. It covers all the twists and turns of the coal
scam, from the allocation to the court cases and cancellations. None of the companies expected the cancellation to happen, as each one of them was a powerful entity. The list of companies contained newspaper owners, garment dealers and politicians.
Most of the narrative on energy is focused on oil or renewables and this is the myopia that is important to correct, which the book does. Moreover, while there is a policy on each of the sectors, there is no overarching policy on energy that India has developed. This is both surprising and remarkable, as the country has ambitions of high GDP growth. Political leaders have continuously harped on an 8-10 % GDP growth, but if there is no energy or a clear energy policy, this growth is not possible. It also creates confusion in the minds of investors, environmentalists and entrepreneurs if the goals on energy, its production and consumption are not laid down.
There are very few writers who can take a subject like coal-energy policy and make it interesting, especially with historical references. The book has stories about Rabindranath Tagore’s grandfather Dwarkanath Tagore, his role as a coal entrepreneur and his remarkable ability to build a supply chain monopoly in coal. Most non-fiction writers believe that it is the reader’s responsibility to wade through the dense narrative, and this is true of great writers like Vaclav Smil too. While Smil’s books are an authority on energy and full of insights, they are not easy to read. Bhattacharjee uses the rivers Damodar and Zambezi to build a fluid and wonderful narrative. Interweaving the narrative with floods, rivers, river coal mafia and what happens on the shores is a feast for any inquisitive reader.
The only disappointment is the myth that the book continues to perpetuate, that the public sector is inefficient. The role of the public sector in growth, development and bringing a balance is important. Profit is not a sign of efficiency, and nor is the private sector non-corrupt. Even in coal, the balance between private and public sectors has to be maintained even if both these sectors have their flaws. But the presence of both these sectors will help in better management of national resources like coal.
The narrative of Indian industry and policy has always been shaped by western thinking, which has proved disastrous. You can learn from sparsely-populated rich countries, but borrowing their policies does not work for India. Hence, India’s energy policy also needs to be derived from ground-up or from below the ground, and take into account the aspirations of the billions who are trying to get out of the poverty trap. Books like India’s Coal Story help in not only presenting the challenges, but in framing the narrative for the future.
K Yatish Rajawat is a start-up strategist and policy analyst. He tweets @yatishrajawat