India’s coal workers call off strike, averting power cuts


MUMBAI: Millions of coal miners in India have called off a five-day strike on the second day after an hours-long meeting with the government, averting power cuts in the energy-hungry country.

Five unions ended the strike late on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila) after talks with the coal minister who promised jobs would not be lost during the right-wing government’s moves to open up the market to private companies.

“We have withdrawn the strike and a committee consisting of representatives from the unions and the government will look into [union]demands,” Gurudas Dasgupta, general secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress told Agence France-Presse on Thursday (Friday in Manila).

Power and Coal Minister Piyush Goyal agreed to form a committee to look into union concerns over a cabinet-approved executive order to allow private companies to mine and sell coal in the future to boost production.

During the five-hour meeting, the government assured unions there were no plans to privatize state-run Coal India, which has a near monopoly over production, and employs 3.4 million workers.

Coal India has been under pressure for years to increase production, with the country’s rapid industrialization leading to ever-rising demand.

The strike had sparked fears of power cuts at the height of winter when temperatures often drop to below freezing in some parts of northern India.

Goyal told reporters on Thursday that negotiations with the unions had been “successful” and stressed the government has no plans to privatize Coal India.

“No step is being taken to denationalize Coal India Limited. It will continue to remain under the management and control of the government of India,” Goyal said in New Delhi.

“We have also formed a committee under the ministry to ensure that all future issues are also discussed and resolved,” he said.

India’s new government pledged in October to open up the industry to private players as part of a raft of reforms by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to revive the ailing economy.

The government approved an ordinance to allow auctions of coal mines to private companies for their own use, as well as permitting commercial mining at some point in the future.

The executive order on coal came after the Supreme Court in September cancelled more than 200 permits for coal mines, after declaring the process of awarding them illegal, throwing the sector into turmoil.

Coal provides nearly 60 percent of India’s electricity generating needs and the country imports vast quantities of the resource, despite sitting on the world’s third largest reserves.

Blackouts are common across India, especially during peak summer months, amid surging demand including from a fast-rising middle class.

A prolonged strike would have run the real risk of triggering outages since many power stations are already operating on dangerously low supplies, analysts told AFP ahead of the shutdown.



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