This is part of a recurring series in which we share reports from Harvard students who have traveled to South Asia with support from a SAI grant.
Rohit spent his summer in India to work on his dissertation on the Indian coal industry.
By Rohit Chandra, PhD candidate in Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School
This summer, I continued my dissertation work on the Indian coal industry, this time focusing more on the labour relations and the local politics surrounding coal in different states. Part of what I was hoping to do is compare how mobilized unions are in different Coal India subsidiaries, and see how locally important these unions are as political actors and brokers of public services. To put together this information, I used a few different sources. The first was a continuing set of interviews of Coal India senior management on their experiences with labour over time. The second was a set of interviews with senior labour leaders and activists who have been engaging with Coal India for an extended period. Thirdly, I was able to access a fantastic in-depth study commissioned by the V V Giri Labour Institute in Noida which had commissioned a study on “outsourcing” labour and its impacts on the mining labour class. And finally, I supplemented these sources with high level interviews with MPs and MLAs from coal-bearing areas who could tell me about the state and national level impacts (if any) of coal politics.
The majority of my time was spent in Jharkhand and West Bengal, with short stints in Chhattisgarh and Orissa as well. Historically, unions have been most active and relevant in Jharkhand and West Bengal, where coal mining has existed for the longest time. Particularly prior to liberalization in the early 1990s, these unions not only lobbied for workers’ rights, but were also strong local political forces who were able to influence the redistributive expenditures of the fiscally powerful public sector coal companies. Particularly in areas like Dhanbad, coal union leaders rose to be strong political forces both at the state and at the national level.
In interviewing MLAs and MPs familiar with the coal industry, it became clear that in the last 20-25 years, the strength of these unions has declined considerably. While they may still be somewhat influential locally, the widespread rise of subcontracting has diminished their political clout considerably. Prior to liberalization, union leaders could extract rents from the public sector coal companies in the form of local jobs, electricity connections, water connections and more. After liberalisation, the public sector coal companies became much more conservative in their hiring and social expenditures. This meant that political leaders had to look elsewhere for their rents. This reduced the social influence of the union leaders considerably. To supplement these interviews, I spent some time in the Indian School of Mines in Dhanbad digitizing some weekly coal journals which covered labour unrest in collieries in some detail.
What my interviews and primary sources make clear is that much like the rest of India, there has been a major change in the role of public sector. As private companies have increasingly taken over the operational aspects of the industry, the redistributive role once inhabited by public sector companies has slowly been vacated. With SAI’s help, I have been able to document these trends at the state/subsidiary level, and one chapter of my dissertation will be based entirely on this material.
 The colloquial terminology used for subcontracting.