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As part of the ongoing India Seminar Series, we hosted Rohit Chandra, a PhD graduate from the Harvard Kennedy School to present his work in New Delhi. Rohit’s talk titled, ‘The Past, Present and Potential Future of Coal in India’, focused on the workings of the Coal sector in India. The seminar was moderated by Subhomoy Bhattacharjee, Consulting Editor, Business Standard.

As part of his research, Rohit looked at the history of coal in India, from mining under the British rule to the nationalisation of the coal sector in the 1970s, as well as current and future projections for the sector. Focusing on the case of Coal India and its evolution over multiple verticals of adaptation: financial, technological, labour and local politics, and federal politics, the talk traced the journey of Coal India –from a loss-making organisation upto the early 1990s to a turnaround story in the subsequent years; showing that PSUs are not simply static, rule-taking organisations, but can often display agency in certain spheres, playing their own role in both local and federal politics. Using evidence from his extensive field research and several interviews, he argued that Coal India’s turnaround was a good example of institutional reform within PSUs.

The discussion further steered between many pertinent areas like outsourcing and private entry into the sector, productivity and efficiency of the subsidiaries – providing the cheapest coal in the world while bearing losses, labour and local politics as well as coal versus other forms of energy. The talk triggered a range of reactions and questions from different members of the audience, including questions on open cast mining, transition into renewable energy and comparison with failures in private sector projects. Between the immediacy of coal shortages, the transition to renewable energy, and India’s deep economic and social dependence on the fuel, the talk concluded that the the coal industry in India may last longer than mainstream debate seems to indicate.