From Poverty to Moon Landing: How Coal Propelled Indian Economy

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From The CO2 Coalition

By Vijay Jayaraj

On August 23, India landed a craft near the Moon’s South Pole – an historic feat matched only by three other countries and made possible by the subcontinent’s largely uninhibited use of fossil fuels.

The acceleration of coal usage between 2000 and 2020 played a pivotal role in bringing electricity to billions and ushering in a new era of economic growth and improved living standards. So much so, that a nation that once did not even have enough food for its population now has funds for space missions.

Fossil Fuels and the Rise of Electricity Access in India

India is a country with a long history of energy poverty — a term that encapsulates the struggle of millions to access basic electricity services. In 1995, only about 50% of the people had access to electricity. Vast segments of the population suffered stunted economic development and substandard education, healthcare and overall quality of life. Rural homes were shrouded in darkness after sunset, hindering productivity and limiting opportunities.

The situation began to change in the early 2000s as the Indian government committed to expand electricity access. One of the key drivers was the use of fossil fuels, especially coal.

Coal is a cheap and abundant source of energy and well-suited for large-scale power generation. Harnessing its abundant coal reserves, India embarked on a journey to alleviate energy poverty, ignite industrial growth and improve the lives of millions.

By 2020, the number of Indians with access to electricity had reached 99%. Yes, fossil fuels improved the lives of billions.

Electric lighting has replaced kerosene lamps, improving indoor air quality and reducing health hazards. It has also extended educational opportunities by enabling students to study after sunset. Daily routines have been transformed because households can engage in activities once limited to daylight hours.

Electrical appliances such as refrigerators and washing machines made lives more comfortable and convenient. Women liberated from the drudgery of handwashing clothes and cooking over smoky fires, are better positioned for educational and occupational opportunities.

Industries ranging from manufacturing and agriculture to information technology have thrived with consistent power supply. As a result, Indian employment has grown at a rapid pace in the past two decades.

India’s progress in eradicating poverty and improving education, gender equality and sanitation aligns with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

During the fiscal year ending March 2022, coal-generated electricity accounted for 72% of all electricity consumed by the country’s 1.3 billion people. In 2022-2023, this rose to 73%.

A famous social media influencer once said, “Facts don’t care about feelings.” And billions of Indians taking pride in their lunar accomplishment and enjoying economic improvements couldn’t care less about the hostility of Western leaders toward the fossil fuels that have made their future brighter.

Vijay Jayaraj is a Research Associate at the CO2 Coalition, Arlington, Virginia. He holds a master’s degree in environmental sciences from the University of East Anglia, UK.