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There’s life beyond coal for India’s engineering students

Mumbai — Born and raised in a coal mining area of eastern India, Devi Prasad Mishra’s career goal was set early in life: to become a mining engineer.           

“My father was a police officer and he saw mining engineers get a lot of respect in our town. He wanted me to become one,” said Mishra, associate professor at the Dhanbad-based Indian Institute of Technology, formerly the Indian School of Mines, now known as IIT (ISM).

The institute — where Mishra did his master’s degree in mining, fulfilling his father’s dream — is now preparing students for careers beyond coal as jobs in the sector shrink.

Mishra said the course material for his mining engineer’s qualification had now become interdisciplinary, with the addition of new technology, data analytics and software.

“We need to prepare students for changing industry requirements and make them relevant for non-mining jobs,” he said.

The mining profession in India faces similar challenges as in the rest of the world: companies seeking skills to ramp up coal production amid shortages near term, but an overall loss of coal-sector employment and ambitious green goals that hold the promise of thousands of jobs in clean energy and related areas.

For engineering colleges, this means conventional mining learning must undergo a make-over to include mechanisation and software design of mines to maximise production today, even as it prepares students for a future in other industries.

To that end, India’s once coal-centred mining programmes have introduced subjects such as solar energy, robotics and even space mining on other mineral-rich planets.

“We anticipate more automation in mining and demand for more skilled jobs. Companies will need specialists,” said Rajiv Shekhar, director of the IIT.

The school has modified its curriculum so that students who have taken mining courses are equipped for jobs in other sectors like information technology or investment banking, he said.

New skills

India, the world’s second biggest coal-producing country and its fifth largest for coal deposits, aims to install 450GW of renewable energy capacity by 2030, after reaching 100GW this year.

A 2019 study by Indian researchers said India’s renewable energy sector could employ more than 3.2-million people by 2050 — up to five times more than its fossil fuel industry today.

The workforce of state-run Coal India, which accounts for about 80% of India’s coal hires, has shrunk to 270,000 from 700,000 in the last four decades, owing to the use of more machinery and outsourcing of mining jobs.

The buzz in college corridors during placement seasons, when entire batches of mining graduates were recruited in one go, has faded as the trend began declining from around 2015.

“It was then we started telling students to explore other industry sectors such as data analytics or business management,” said professor Amit Verma, who handled mining placements at IIT from 2014-2018 and now works at the IIT-Banaras Hindu University.

While 13,000 employees retire annually from Coal India, in 2021 the company advertised only 1,300 vacancies, of which 275 were for mining engineers, officials said.

“Coal India will continue to hire and there will be jobs for at least the next five years,” said Vinay Ranjan, its director of personnel, adding that coal companies were seeking knowledge of robotics and drones to boost their productivity and profits.

Navdesh Yadav, who joined IIT’s mining engineering cohort last year, remains optimistic about a career in coal.

“We are learning AI and digitisation of mines. The industry is changing and so is our course. Coal mines are here to stay,” Yadav said.

But not everyone is as keen for a once sought-after job at Coal India, with officials estimating only 40% of students are now showing interest.

“The rest wish to join data analytics, management or information technology. But for those from the hinterland, Coal India will continue to be the employer of choice, for they have seen their fathers or uncles work here,” said Ranjan, referring to smaller towns and villages in coal-rich rural areas.

Close to home

Almost 40% of mining engineering students come from mineral-rich districts, said Soumya Ranjan Mallick, head of the mining department at the Government College of Engineering in Keonjhar.

“They are familiar with mining and hope to find work near their hometown,” he said.

But with only half of its mining undergraduates finding coal jobs, the college has included renewable energy in its mining curriculum, as well as alternative materials to steel, which has a high-carbon production process.

Mallick said the course used to focus on understanding coal and grades of coal, and how thermal power is generated from it. “Now it is also about wind and solar energy,” he added.

But many of those who hail from coal-producing regions are not yet considering careers outside mining the dirty fossil fuel.

Shubham Pandey picked mining at IIT as a natural option after his childhood in the mining belt of Giridih in eastern Jharkhand state.

The second-year student said he had heard people working in mines there talk about the risks of underground mining.

“I think about these risks often — I believe the changes in the curriculum will help me mitigate those,” he said.

While some young engineers are already looking beyond a career in coal, for others it remains an attractive option.

Srikant Prasad, 33, grew up in the eastern Indian mining hub of Hazaribagh and studied mining engineering at the Birsa Institute of Technology in Dhanbad.

“I knew just one thing: where there are mines, there is work,” he said.

After graduating, he was placed at a mining firm, before landing his dream job at Coal India — and is now happy to be posted in his native area.

“This was a bonus. I did not imagine I would be able to live near my hometown,” he said. “India’s transition to clean energy will happen after I retire, I think.”

Thomson Reuters Foundation