In Pictures: As COP26 meets, India’s poor say they ‘live by coal’

Every day, Raju gets on his bicycle after he straps half a dozen sacks of coal pilfered from mines, up to 200kg (440 pounds), to the reinforced metal frame of his bike.

Driving mostly at night to avoid the police and the heat, he transports the coal 16km (10 miles) to traders who pay him $2.

This has been Raju’s life since he arrived in Dhanbad, a city in India’s eastern state of Jharkhand in 2016.

Thousands of others do the same. Coal is all they have.

This is what the United Nations climate change conference in Scotland, known as COP26, is up against.

Earth desperately needs people to stop burning coal, the biggest single source of greenhouse gases, to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, including the intense flooding that has cost agricultural jobs in India.

But people rely on coal. It is the world’s biggest source of fuel for electric power and so many, desperate like Raju, depend on it for their very lives.

“The poor have nothing but sorrow … but so many people, they’ve been saved by coal,” Raju said.

Alok Sharma, the United Kingdom’s president-designate of the conference, said in May that he hoped the conference would mark the moment where coal is left “in the past where it belongs”.

While that may be possible for some developed nations, it is not so simple for developing countries. They argue they should be allowed the “carbon space” to grow as developed nations have, by burning cheap fuels like coal, which is used in industrial processes such as steelmaking along with electric power generation.

On average, the typical American uses 12 times more electricity than the typical Indian. There are more than 27 million people in India who do not have electricity at all.

Power demand in India is expected to grow faster than anywhere in the world over the next two decades as the economy grows and ever more extreme heat increases demand for air conditioning that so much the rest of the world takes for granted.

Coal India, the world’s largest miner, aims to increase production to more than one billion tonnes a year by 2024.

“Coal has continued for 100 years. Workers believe it will continue to do so,” said D D Ramanandan, the secretary at the Centre of Indian Trade Unions in Ranchi.

The consequences will be felt both globally and locally. Unless the world drastically cuts greenhouse gas emissions, the planet will suffer even more extreme heat waves, erratic rainfall and destructive storms in coming years, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

A 2021 study by the Indian government found that Jharkhand, with the nation’s largest coal reserves, is also the most vulnerable Indian state to climate change.

But there are roughly 300,000 people working directly with government-owned coal mines, earning fixed salaries and benefits. And there are nearly four million people in India whose livelihoods are directly or indirectly linked to coal, said Sandeep Pai, who studies energy security and climate change at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

India’s coal belt is dotted by industries that need the fuel, like steel and brick making. Indian Railways, one of the country’s largest employers, earns half its revenue by transporting coal, allowing it to subsidise passenger travel.

“Coal is an ecosystem,” Pai said.