Coal Privatisation and the Opposition of Mine Workers

Over five lakh workers of Coal India Ltd (CIL) and Singareni Collieries Company Ltd. (SCCL) will go on a one day strike on August 18. The unions have served the notice for the strike on August 1. From that day, the workers have launched a program of agitations in the form of work to rule, rallies, gate meetings and pit meetings, culminating in the August 18 strike. This was announced by a joint meeting of five unions of coal workers, affiliated to BMS, HMS, AITUC, CITU and INTUC.

Coal workers are extremely agitated over the announcement made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on June 18, of the auction of 41 coal mining blocks for commercial mining to private capitalists. The bids are supposed to be opened on August 18.

Private industrial companies have so far only been allowed to own and operate captive coal mines, that is, to mine coal for use in their own industry.  Opening up coal mining to private commercial mining means that private companies can mine and sell coal to anyone they please.

The auction of 41 coal mines follows major changes in laws governing coal mining. On 8 January 2018, the Coking Coal Mines (Nationalization) Act, 1972 and the Coal Mines (Nationalization) Act, 1973 were repealed by the Repealing and Amending (Second) Act, 2017.  On 20 February 2018, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) permitted private firms to enter the commercial coal mining industry in India. On August 28, 2019, the Union Cabinet approved 100% foreign direct investment (FDI) in coal mining.

To express their complete opposition to these moves, coal miners organised a three day strike on July 2-4, 2020, bringing coal production to a halt. All the unions of coal workers actively participated to make that strike a success. However, the government is going ahead with the auction of coal blocks, disregarding the opposition of the workers. In response, coal miners have decided to further strengthen their mass opposition and organise another strike on August 18.

The coal workers have raised five main demands.

The first demand is for immediate withdrawal of the decision to start commercial mining of coal.

State ownership and control of coal mines was established 38 years ago, after persistent struggle of coal workers against their super-exploitation by private capitalist companies.  Since then, coal workers have continued their struggle and succeeded in gaining legal recognition for many of their rights, including minimum wages, social security and decent working conditions fit for human beings.  Opening up coal mining once again to private companies threatens to deprive them of these hard won rights.

Capitalist companies will run the mines with the aim of securing maximum profits. As they did in the past, they will resort to surface (open cast) mining of coal instead of underground mining, in order to cut down their costs. They will undercut CIL by selling coal at a lower price. CIL will be declared to be “inefficient”, loss making, and pronounced to be a “sick company”. It will be liquidated step by step, and sold to private parties. These are among the legitimate fears of the lakhs of mine workers of Coal India.

Open cast mining of coal is not in the long-term interests of the country because once the coal close to the surface is removed, it will be very difficult to extract the coal that is left underground. This will lead to destruction on a massive scale of this precious, non-renewable source of energy.

A second major demand is an immediate halt to privatisation, that is, to the sale of shares of CIL.  

Privatisation means handing over of public assets to private profit maximizing capitalist companies. When coal blocks are sold to Indian or foreign capitalists, this is one form of privatization. When the shares of Coal India are sold in the market, this is another form of privatisation. Both are part of the process of privatisation of the coal industry.

On June 18, Prime Minister Narender Modi proudly declared that his government was “Unlocking India’s coal sector from lockdown of decades”. He meant that now capitalists, Indian and foreign, are free to exploit the coal resources of India, and super-exploit the coal workers, for fulfilling their insatiable greed for maximum profits.

It was the previous government, headed by Manmohan Singh, which took the first major step towards privatisation in October 2010, by making public offerings of shares of CIL. Since then, the central government’s share of Coal India has been reduced from 100% to about 66%.

CIL is one of the most valued companies on the Indian stock exchange with a market value of ₹2.16 lakh crore in 2019. Workers of Coal India are questioning why this highly profitable and valuable public property should be sold, bit by bit, to profit-hungry capitalists.

The third demand of the coal workers is that the plan to separate Central Mines Planning and Design Institute Ltd (CMPDIL) from CIL be immediately withdrawn.

CMPDIL was established in the year 1975 as a subsidiary of Coal India Limited, to provide comprehensive consultancy services – that is, from concept to commissioning. Separating CMPDIL from CIL will mean that CIL will no longer have its own dedicated organization to ensure further development of coal mining in the country. Instead, private capitalist companies will utilise the scientific-technical services of CMPDIL for advancing their own interests. It is a clear sign that the government plans to liquidate CIL.

The fourth demand of coal workers is that the management of CIL and SCCL must implement agreed upon decisions with respect to contract labour.

There are over 2 lakh workers of CIL on temporary contracts. They are paid much lower wages then the regular workers. They are made to work longer hours and forced to take up the most hazardous tasks.  They have no social security. Following prolonged struggle by the workers’ unions, the management of CIL issued an order on 18 February, 2013, for payment of minimum wages and implementation of a Social Security Scheme for Contract Workers. However this order is still to be implemented. Coal workers are demanding that the 2013 order is implemented immediately.

The fifth demand is that the dependents of workers killed or injured in accidents must be employed by the coal companies.

Workers had fought hard for this demand. An agreement had been signed by the workers’ unions and the management of CIL and SCCL in October 2017, called the 10th Coal Wage Agreement, which provided for the employment of such dependents. Workers are demanding implementation of this agreement.

In addition to these five pending demands, coal workers are also demanding strict action against CIL officials who attacked workers for participating in the July strike.

The coal workers of our country are one of the most organised sections of the working class. They have a long history of militant struggle against exploitation and in defence of their rights. The struggle that they are waging against the moves to privatize coal mining is a just struggle. It is a struggle to protect public property created through the labour of generations of workers. It is a struggle to protect this precious source of energy from the greed of the capitalist monopolies. It deserves the support of the entire working class and people of our country.

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