Energy in India: the genesis of its powerful coal industry

At the start of the 2020 decade, with an annual emission of around 2.5 billion tons (Gt) of CO2 (7% of global emissions), India is still far behind China’s 10 Gt. But, at an average annual growth rate of 5%, it is getting closer to it. This comes from the necessity to supply energy to a growing population that is in short supply, but also from the predominance of its coal industry. What is the origin of the latter? How did it develop? Can its expansion prospects over the next few decades be curbed?

The Indian coal industry is largely ignored in many writings on the economy and even on energy in this country[1]. Yet it was the first, and for a long time the only, energy industry in a country condemned to using traditional energy sources: firewood, dried animal dung and animal muscle power. How did India integrate mineral coal into its energy balance? What part did the British, masters of the field, and the Indians themselves play during the 19th century? What were the main stages of this coal development up to the Second World War, which was more important than the First in terms of India’s economic, political and societal development, since it was followed by the proclamation of independence in 1947? The answers to all these questions contribute to a better understanding of the footprint that the location of the mines, the construction of the ore disposal network and the industrial organization have left on the modalities of energy supply in India in the 21st century.


1. Abundant coal resources

The limits of the ore stock in the earth are less quantitative than qualitative (Read: Charbon minéral : géologie, ressources et réserves). Indeed, India does not lack deposits: alongside those of the Tertiary era located in the northern states of Assam, Jammu and Kashmir, and those of brown coal scattered in states far apart (Tamil Nadu in the south, Gujarat and Rajasthan in the west), Gondwanaland coal accounts for 95% of India’s solid fuel reserves. Most of it is concentrated in the eastern states of West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar and Orissa, with the remainder spread over the central states from Madhya Pradesh to Andhra Pradesh. The main deposits in the east take the form of rosaries distributed between the Damodar valleys, the eastern end of which is 150 km from Calcutta; further south, the Mahanadi valley and then the Godavari valley where the Singareni deposit is exploited (Figure 1).


Fig. 1: Location of coal deposits. – Source: Bhattacharya, Tania & Managi, Shunsuke (2015). “An assessment of biodiversity offsets and mitigation actions case studies on mining, energy and paper and pulp sectors in India” [Source : Bhattacharya, Tania & Managi, Shunsuke. (2015). An Assessment of Biodiversity Offsets and Mitigation Actions Case studies on mining, energy and paper and pulp sectors in Indi]

The richest reserves are those of Damodar (Bengal and Bihar) with basins stretching over 500 km: Raniganj, Giridih, Jharia, East and West Bokaro, North and South Karanpura. Made up of thick veins and often exploitable in open air, they provide the best coals, some of which are cokeable[2].

What is the volume of fuel stored in these deposits and in a few others, which are still barely explored? At the 12th International Geological Congress, held in Canada in 1913, India’s reserves were estimated, with no precise degree of safety, at 79 Gt, i.e. 6% of those of Asia, almost exclusively Chinese, and 1% of those of the world. Over the next half-century, this volume was better specified (coking and noncoking coals; proven, indicated and inferred reserves) but remained virtually unchanged until the Geological Survey of India (GSI), which in April 1972 reported a total volume of 80,950 Gt, limited to veins over 1.2 meters (2,000 feet) thick, at a depth of no more than 610 meters (2,000 feet), with a few exceptions. Over the following decades, as geological knowledge advances, these estimates will change considerably (Read: L’énergie en Inde : de Jawaharlal Nehru à Indira Gandhi, in preparation).


2. A low interest in mineral coal mining

The reference to coal and mining in many place names in eastern India (Barakar, Angarpathra, Kalipahari, Damodar) attests to the antiquity of knowledge of this resource and its occasional use long before the arrival of Europeans[3]. But unlike the north, South Asia has not been forced into an early massive exploitation of mineral fuels because it does not seem, with local exceptions, to have suffered from shortages of plant fuels, owing in large part to low population pressure, near economic stagnation and an environment rich in plants that can be used for energy purposes.

According to Angus Maddison, India’s population has grown from 75 million at the beginning of our era to 110 in 1500, 165 in 1700 and 209 in 1820, i.e. from 50% to 30% of the population of the Asian continent[4]. At the beginning of the period, it was higher than that of China, but from 1500 onwards it became lower, following a rate of growth (0.20% per year) that was half as high (0.41%) and comparable to that of Japan (0.22%). On the basis of numerous historical studies relating to Mughal India in the 16th and 17th centuries, Kenneth Pomeranz also concludes that population growth was much lower there than in China, Japan and Europe (between 0.10 and 0.30% per year)[5].

India, which is not very active demographically, has not been economically very active (Figure 2). Again according to Angus Maddison, its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita remained stable from the beginning of our era to the 16th century, at a constant $450, then increased slightly to $550, before falling back after 1700 “following the collapse of the Mongol empire and the costs of adapting to the British system of government”[6]. At the same time, in China (Read: L’énergie en Chine : du début de notre ère à l’instauration du communisme), the progress of agriculture allowed from the Ming period the development of an important craft industry (textile spinning and weaving, processing of agricultural products, brick and tile making, metallurgy and machine building), while in Japan, initially less rich because it was poor in arable land, faster urbanization favored the development of the economy.


Fig. 2: Indian peasants. [Source : Academic Dictionary]

Moreover, India’s population and economic growth, which is lower than that of China and Japan, has not encountered any environmental limitations. Forest resources were indeed greater in India. In the mid-18th century, “even the densely populated Bengal still had almost a third of its surface area covered by unlogged forests and swamps.”[7]This was due to the abundance of vegetation in the tropics, but also to a social organization in which the exploitation of resources was limited in various ways. “The caste system, where it was applied, gave exclusive control to narrowly closed groups of specialists” so as not to harm the descendants through overexploitation. Elsewhere, some rulers in pre-colonial India were said to have maintained “a careful ecological balance, before British demand for timber and cash crops… tipped the balance”. The historian concludes: “In any case, the political economy and ecology of India appears to be of a different nature from that of areas that were already on the threshold of their pre-industrial population peak, and far beyond all their previous cyclical peaks”.

For all these reasons, India has little incentive to turn to the exploitation of its coal resources. Even the steel industry, which was very advanced around the Christian era, most probably relied on small furnaces heated by charcoal[8]. Later on, there is no evidence that Indian metallurgists had to replace it with mineral coal.

Almost the entire population, made up mostly of rural farmers, therefore derives from so-called “non-commercial” energy sources the energy they need to cultivate the land, cook their food, heat themselves in cold regions, move around and transport goods (Read: La consommation mondiale d’énergie avant l’ère industrielle). What is its annual volume? In the absence of statistics, various estimates converge on 0.25 tonnes of oil equivalent per capita (toe/h), half of which is provided by firewood, half by dried cow dung, plant waste and animal traction. Assuming little change over time, this consumption would have evolved from about 20 million toe (Mtoe) at the beginning of our era to about 50 million toe in 1820, compared to a few hundred toe from the combustion of mineral coal at that time[9].


3. Changes linked to the opening up of trade with Western countries

The opening of India to trade with Western countries will gradually change this situation.  From 1500, the Portuguese settled in Goa, Diu, Mangalore and other ports from where they exported pepper, silk, indigo and various non-ferrous metals, before giving way to the Dutch, whose powerful Vereenigde Oostindische Companie (VOC) came into action at the beginning of the 17th century. Then came the Danes, the French and finally the English who had the last word with the installation of the East India Company (EIC)[10].

When the latter arrived, the institutions governing the Indian economy did not allow the emergence of capitalism. The authority and power of the Great Mogul, who distributed land, villages and rents, was hardly contested. Only the commercial activities that have developed within the protective framework of the merchant and banker castes are partly beyond his control. The latter, in whose hands most of the capital is concentrated, hesitated to invest it in enterprises whose risks they find difficult to measure: “India was not, therefore, the most likely theater for an industrial breakthrough, despite the sophistication of its trade and its technologies”[11].


Fig. 3: Image of the Raj, the name of the British colonization system in India. [Source: IndiaFacts.]

The EIC will, however, make a difference. From its bases in Calcutta (Kolkata), Madras (Chennai) and Bombay (Mumbai), it wove a dense network of trade with China and Europe, then, taking advantage of the collapse of the Mughal Empire, conquered the province of Bengal in 1757[12]. Its functions changed from commercial to administrative and political until the British Crown took over the colonization of India in the last decades of the 18th century, a position that was strengthened after the Cipayes (Sipahi) revolt of 1857 (Figure 3).

The new secure institutional framework began attracting foreign, mostly British, capital into tea plantations, the jute industry and coal mines. They were frequently implemented by former executives of the EIC, which successively lost its trading monopolies in India (1813) and China (1833). The preferred legal form of these investments was that of the “managing agency house”, which consists of entrusting the management of new companies to an existing company, one that is well established and therefore capable of dealing with the intricacies of Indian institutions[13]. Managing many enterprises, these companies favored the concentration of capital, which provided an advantage to foreign investors over Indian family companies trying to enter the industry[14]. It is on these institutional bases that the Indian coal industry was formed in response to emerging demand.


4. The railways driving demand for coal

In addition to the brickworks close to the mines, it is the bunkers of the first river and sea steamers that offer outlets for Bengali coal. Before the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 favored Bombay, and before and the residence of the viceroys was moved to New Delhi in 1911, Calcutta (Kolkata) was the economic and political heart of the Empire. Initially, steam strengthened its position because ships using it only needed a few days to reach the metropolis from Diamond Harbour, at the mouth of the Hooghly, instead of the two or three weeks imposed on sailing ships by the climate and navigation conditions. More and more docks were built there. They attracted both sea and river navigation, which needed coal to fill the ships’ bunkers. Much further south, and later in the 1860s, the artificial harbor built at Madras (Chennai) also provided outlets for the best Indian coals. Although inferior to good Welsh fuels, Bengal coals were the first to feed steamers, as early as the 1830s, before those from Borneo ten years later and those from Natal in the 1860s[15].

However, it was not maritime and river transport, but the jute industry and, above all, the railways that were responsible for the take-off of the Indian coal industry. All countries have experienced the impetus of rail, but none with the strength it has had in India, where rail development has been one of the fastest in the world (Figure 4).  From 325 km in 1855, the length of its network jumped to 15,764 in 1880, 40,396 in 1900 and 72,144 in 1940: by 1890, it exceeded that of Canada and joined that of Great Britain, overtaking that of France ten years later and that of Germany at the end of the period. All the other indicators (number of passengers transported, number of passengers/km or tonnage of goods transported) point in the same direction: “The conclusion is inescapable: judging from all these agregate figures of size and output, India had one of the world’s top rail networks, at least from 1890 on”[16].


Fig. 4: Indian railways. [Source : Maps of,]

At the origin of this success story, the project of an Indian railway network was designed by a British engineer who managed during the 1840s to persuade the establishment of the interest of iron to drain towards the ports the raw materials of the interior, in particular cotton, and to protect the colony militarily. He eventually won the conviction of the EIC, which adopted an institutional framework that was particularly attractive to British investors: a 98-year concession during which the concessionaire could resell its assets to the State; free land in exchange for the right to supervise the construction and operation of the lines by the public authorities; above all, the guarantee of a dividend of 5% per year (below this, the State would pay the difference; above this, it would share it with the company).

On this basis, capital is flowing in. As early as 1850, two major companies were formed: the East India Railway Company (EIR) on the Calcutta-Delhi route and the Great Indian Peninsula Railway Company (GIP) on the Bombay-Allahabad route. Over the next two decades, some 15 others followed suit. Between them, they absorbed about 50% of British investment in India. At a time when investment was running out of steam, a second impulse was given by the Governorate which, tired of having to make up the difference between the 5% promised and the 3% actual, preferred to take direct responsibility for the construction of the railway network, the length of which doubled between 1870 and 1880. The old companies accepted new, less advantageous contracts or sold their assets to the State, while keeping the management of the lines they had built. In 1920, 73% of the network was publicly owned, but 70% of its management was private. This arrangement was not always remarkably efficient, but most of the territory was served, which was a triple advantage for the Indian coal industry.

First of all, there are important markets because the first locomotives are particularly voracious in coal: purchases by the railway companies must have been close to, or even more than, 50% of the sales of Indian coal between 1860 and 1890.

The second and even more important asset was the creation of a national market through the establishment of means of transport between the coal-producing East and the industrializing West. It was in Bombay that a textile industry was reborn, which had been undermined since the end of the 18th century by competition from the Lancashire cottons marketed by the EIC counters. The weakening of the latter, deprived of its monopoly, encouraged Indian initiatives. After a few unsuccessful attempts in Bengal, a textile factory mechanized by a steam engine was inaugurated in 1856 in Bombay. A quarter of a century later, about 80 of them supplied the domestic and Asian markets. The industry in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, emulated that of Bombay. All their steam engines needed fuel, first imported from Great Britain, then supplied by Indian mines as soon as the railway arrived on the west coast: the 692,000 tonnes of coal bought in Cardiff in 1880 fell to 188,000 in 1905[17].

Finally, the third advantage for the coal industry was that the demand for railroads led the railways to create a steel industry, which in turn became a major consumer of fuel. It took half a century for the company to come into being, but it is one of the companies that left the strongest marks on Indian collieries: After the failure of a very large number of projects, from 1830 onwards, the first because they were based on charcoal, the latter because they clashed with the interests of British steelmakers, it was finally a great cotton industrialist from Bombay, Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata, who triumphed over the greatest obstacles and enabled his heirs to launch the Tata Iron and Steel Company (TISCO) in 1905. Entrusted by the authorities to produce 20,000 tons of rails annually for 10 years, they installed their first blast furnace between the iron ore of Gurumaishini and the coal mine of Jharia, west of Calcutta, and cast their first steel ingot in February 1912. British import restrictions during the First World War, followed by increased protection of the Indian market throughout the 1920s, consolidated the young company. Indian steel production rose from 68,000 tonnes in 1914 to 136,000 tonnes in 1919. The story was not exactly as Karl Marx[18] had anticipated, but it has retained some of its features[19]since English and Indian capitalists invested enough in the mines to lay the foundations for a real coal industry.


5. The rise of the coal industry

From about 100,000 tonnes before 1850, the volume extracted annually exceeded one million tonnes (Mt) in 1878, then reached 16 Mt on the eve of World War I and 30 Mt after World War II (Table 1).


Table 1: Coal Production in India 1860-1949


1 000 t
1860     376
1865     330
1878   1 031
1880   1 036
1885   1 315
1890   2 204
1895   3 594
1900   6 216
1905   8 553
1910 12 240
1913 16 468
1920 18 250
1925 21 239
1930 24 185
1935 23 386
1940 29 860
1945 29 635
1949 31 695
Source: Etemad Bouda, op. cit., pp. 17,18. No data are available for the years 1867-1877. All the coal produced is hard coal.

The first operators were both Indian and English, the latter owning larger companies set up to supply the very first steamers: the Equitable Coal Company, the Burrakar Coal Company or the Bengal Coal Company. The latter, however, was not owned by British investors, but by Bengali entrepreneurs who were also trying their luck. They were headed by Dwarkanath Tagore, who was supported by the Union Bank and a managing agency house, Carr, Tagore and Co. But ten years later, the Bengal Coal Company was in British hands because “in coal, the expatriates dominated the industry”[20]. An identical fate seems to have been reserved for the Searsole Coal Company, also created by Indian entrepreneurs to exploit the same Raniganj deposit.

In spite of its growth during the second half of the 19th century, the coal industry did not change much in appearance: alongside a large number of small Indian-owned companies, there were a few larger British-owned companies. The former exploited, without any equipment other than picks and baskets, the lower quality deposits whose products were destined for a few local users, who were short of wood. The latter were much more productive and profitable because they introduced modern equipment while maintaining mining institutions inherited from the Mongolian period that guarantee them a docile and cheap labor force (Figure 5).

Fig. 5: Traditional coal mining in India. [Source:Ritimo]

The companies, in the first instance, purchased the zamindari

rights to the land on which the mines were opened, which transfered to the zamindar, in return for the tax revenues paid to it, the task of controlling the population through rents and loans. The resulting debts, which could never be repaid, definitively attached the miner to the company. Many mine managers, secondly, do not even bother with hiring problems. They use contractors (ticcadars) who not only hired and paid the workers but also subcontracted to middlemen to supervise the work of the miners and measure their production[21]. Over time, both institutions would increasingly affect labor productivity in Indian mines, with the former completely demotivating miners, the latter leading to corruption (miners were forced to bribe contractors to keep their jobs) and inefficient operations (ticcadars have no incentive to invest in mine and miner safety).

By interrupting English coal imports, the First World War encouraged the consolidation of India’s young coal industry. Demand exceeded supply, prices rose (from 3.8 rupees per ton in 1914 to 4.6 in 1918) and would probably have risen even higher without government control. The better-established companies took advantage of this to mechanize, electrify, and lower extraction levels beyond the 2,000 feet to which they were limited. The others were content to produce more, without much concern for quality and productivity.

When peace returned, the Indian coal industry did not find its external markets (Ceylon, Singapore, Malaysia). It began to cross the desert, punctuated by falling prices and bankruptcies, until the outbreak of the Second World War, which boosted domestic and foreign demand for Indian coal. Due to a lack of skilled labor and poor transport, the supply could hardly keep up. With the Colliery Control Order of 1944, then by adopting the main measures recommended by the Coalfield Committee in 1946, the public authorities revived it[22].


6. India’s energy balance is beginning to diversify

Far behind the coal industry, the oil and electricity industries were born in the last decade of the 19th century, driven by the triple impetus of a demand for new sources of energy, the consolidation of Indian capitalism and the installation of foreign firms. Initially slow, the diversification of the energy balance became clearer in the aftermath of the First World War (Table 2).


Table 2: Evolution of primary energy consumption


Mtep Coal Oil Hydraulic Total commercial sources Biomass Total consumption
1860 0.19 0.19 47.50 47.69
1890 1.10 0.02 1.12 58.50 59.62
1900 3.10 0.15 3.25 58.50 61.75
1913 8.30 1.10 9.40 62.70 72.10
1925 11.30 1.14 0.01 12.45 65.00 77.45
1938 15.40 2.50 0.10 18.00 78.80 96.80
1950 17.60 3.33 2.20 23.13 90.00 113.13
Source: From 1925 to 1950, Darmstadter Joel (1971). Energy in the world economy. Washington: Resources for the Future, 876 p, (p. 641). For earlier years, Etemad Bouda, op. cit. and Mitchell B.R. (1982). International Historical Statistics Africa and Asia. London: The MacMillan Press, 756 p, (pp. 288, 364). Biomass data are only orders of magnitude obtained by multiplying the population by the 0.25 toe estimate (see above).

Close to 100% at the beginning of the period, the share of non-commercial sources slowly declined but apparently did not fall below 80%. On the so-called commercial sources side, coal is by far the most important, followed by petroleum products and then electricity, which began to emerge under the rising pressure of new energy uses generated by population growth, urbanization and industrial development.

From about 180 million (M) inhabitants in 1850, India’s population rose to 235 M in 1900, 318 M in 1940 and 359 M in 1950, an average annual rate of 0.85% during the first half of the 20th century. From being almost exclusively rural, it gradually became urbanized but at a much lower rate than in other developing countries: from 11% in 1901, it rose to 12.2% in 1931 and 17.6% in 1951. Despite a network of cities created in the Middle Ages by the Mughal Empire, then reinforced by the arrival of the Portuguese (Goa), the French (Pondicherry) and especially the English (Madras, Bombay or Calcutta), the number of cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants did not exceed 25 in 1901, before rising to 30 in 1921, then 50 in 1941 and 77 in 1951[23].

This urbanization is inseparable from an industrial development that began again from the textile industry with the cotton factories of Bombay and the jute factories of Calcutta. Then, in particular under the impulse of the First World War, this development spread to metallurgy, cement factories, glass, chemistry and food[24]. In addition to foreigners, mainly British, Indians were very active, “within the framework of a family capitalism, still very close to its commercial roots”[25].

Urbanization and industrialization created new needs in terms of lighting, mobility not met by railways, especially trams, and driving power other than that provided by coal-fired steam engines. In the last decade of the 19th century, a demand for kerosene, petrol, fuel oil and electricity emerged, encouraged by the arrival of foreign companies attracted by the prospects of these new markets.

6.1. The beginnings of the oil industry

As in the rest of the world, it is the attraction of kerosene for lighting purposes that drove the market for petroleum products in India[26]. Standard oil, which initially controlled the market through the spread of kerosene lamps throughout Asia, China in particular, faced competition from 1885 onwards from Russian kerosene, which the Shell and Transport Company transported via the Suez Canal after 1892. At the turn of the century, India consumed around 4,000 tonnes a year, when Burmese kerosene came into play, benefiting from preferential customs duties[27]. With an estimated production of 152,000 t/year, the Burmah Oil Company, which exploits it, can easily supply the Indian market and beyond[28].

In this context, an Indian oil industry began, however, to emerge from the exploitation of the Digboi fields in the Assam Valley and Punjab. The discovery of the former is attributed to Italian engineers, employees of the Assam Railways and Trading Company (ARTC) who, in 1869, reportedly found that the feet of their elephants were coated with a black mud smelling of oil. From there, research undertaken by this company led to the discovery of crude oil between 1876 and 1882 in the vicinity of the town of Digboi and the construction in 1889 of the first refinery in Mergherita. This was incorporated in 1899 into the Assam Oil Company, soon to be joined by Indo Burmah Petroleum, both of which became part of the Burmah Oil Company, which developed the refinery still near Digboi (Figure 6). In 1900, Assam was producing 3,000 t/year and Punjab less than ten, which was very little compared to what Burma supplied, but these productions were to grow very quickly.


Fig. 6: Oil fields of the Burmah Oil Company. [Source :hotten.net]

At that time, the Burmah Oil Company already controlled more than a third of the Indian kerosene market, as it still enjoyed an advantage over its competitors who were subject to customs duties and excluded from any participation in the exploitation of Indian and Burmese deposits. This preferential treatment was further reinforced in 1905 when the Royal Navy, having opted to supply its ships with fuel oil, obtained the exclusion of all foreign companies. “Suppliers of light to Indians peasants were about to become important contractors of the Royal Navy.”[29]

The volume of crude oil extracted by Burmah reached one million tonnes in 1913, stagnating at this level until 1927 before falling back to around 200,000 tonnes. At that time, the Asiatic Petroleum Company and the Burmah Oil Company became part of the Burmah-Shell Oil Storage and Distribution Company of India Limited, which preferred to import petroleum products rather than to extract and refine crude from distant Assam, which was experiencing serious political difficulties. This option is all the more significant as Burmah became one of the main shareholders of the Anglo Persian Oil Company (APOC), now British Petroleum (BP), which now has abundant and cheap resources in Iran. It was not until the Industrial Policy Resolution of 1948 and the joint venture between Oil India Ltd and Burmah Oil Company that Assam oil regained its place in Indian oil supplies (Read: L’énergie en Inde : de Jawaharlal Nehru à Indira Gandhi, in preparation).

6.2. The first steps of electrification

“In the absence of an exclusive survey having been made at the time, it is difficult to accurately assess the electricity situation in India before the Great War”[30]. From the scarce published data, it appears that by 2015 the country has 107 MW installed, mostly in the form of small diesel units, coal-fired generators and small hydropower plants[31]. These units are owned by 121 companies:

– industrial companies, mainly cotton and jute producers

– owners of streetcars or urban railways

– utility companies serving the few individuals accustomed to the use of electricity

Most of these companies are located in Bombay, Calcutta, Madras and Goa. They operate within a legal framework inspired by the British Electrical Lighting Act, which was introduced in 2010.

In this context of timid electrification, the exploitation of the hydropower potential, between 6 and 13 GW, has led to some more ambitious projects: the 400 kW of Crompton in Darjeeling (West Bengal) in 1997, then the 15 MW of Cauvery Falls (Karnataka) and especially the 45 MW of Tata Hydro-Electric Power Supply Co Ltd, installed on 300 million m3 (Mm3) reservoirs fed by the monsoon, in the Ghats about 80 km from Bombay (Figure 7). Inaugurated in 1915, the Khopoli power plant consists of four Pelton turbines of 10.25 MW each, providing 100,000 volts of power over 70 km to the already numerous plants in Bombay.


Fig. 7: Bhira hydropower plant. [Source : Tata Group]

Between the two World Wars, electrification expanded to new territories and new users, thanks to investments by industrialists and local governments, which raised the installed capacity to 1,320 MW in 1950. On this basis, electricity consumption grew at a very high average annual rate of 10%, half of which came from hydropower (Table 3).


Table 3: Electricity production of which hydropower


Electricity consumption (GWh) Hydroelectric production (GWh) Hydroelectric production/electrical consumption (%)
1925    470   188 40
1938 2 250 1200 53
1950 5 107 2520 49
Source: Darmstadter Joël (1971). Energy, op. cit. pp. 211 et 677.

At the time of its accession to independence on 15 August 1947, India could pride itself on having, since 1850, multiplied its consumption of so-called commercial energy sources by 120 times, through the exploitation of its coal resources, but also, on a lesser scale, oil and hydraulic resources. In relation to its population, however, this consumption does not exceed a few dozen kep, including about ten kWh, i.e. levels of the same order as those observed in China at the same time. The large mass of the population, spread over thousands of villages loyal to a traditional community organization, continues to draw from biomass and animal traction the energy it needs to feed itself, to work in the fields, to make its daily utensils or to travel.

Given this situation, how could the players in the independent India of 1947 build a modern energy system capable of supporting their industrialization project? (Read: L’énergie en Inde : de Jawaharlal Nehru à Indira Gandhi, in preparation).



[1]This is evidenced by the article by Nandakumar Janardhanan (Changer la dynamique de la sécurité énergétique de l’Inde, in La renaissance de l’Inde, Agir, 44, décembre 2010, pp. 87-100) in which mineral coal is not even mentioned, as the problems of energy security are reduced to the supply of oil and gas. Coal is not much better treated by Jean-Joseph Boillot (L’économie de l’Inde, Paris: La Découverte, 2009, pp. 104-107) for whom the rise in hydrocarbon prices only leads to renewable sources and nuclear power.

[2] L’industrie houillère et la législation du travail dans les mines de l’Inde. Chonicle from Annales des Mines, VI, 1951, pp. 35-38.

[3] Bishnupada Guha (1965). The Coal Mining Industry (p. 303), in Singh V.B. Economic of India: 1857-1956. Bombay: Allied Publishers Private Limited, 520 p.

[4] Maddison Angus (2001). L’économie mondiale. Une perspective millénaire. Paris: OCDE, 400 p, (p. 255).

[5]Pomeranz Kenneth (2010). Une grande divergence. La Chine, l’Europe et la construction de l’économie mondiale. Paris: Albin Michel, 550 p. First English language edition published in 2000.

[6] Maddison Angus (2001). L’économie, op. cit, p. 270.

[7] Pomeranz Kenneth. Une grande divergence, op. cit, pp. 323-324. For more details, the author suggests: Moosvi  Shireen (1987). The Economy of the Mughal Empire c. 1595. A statistical Study. Oxford University  Press; Subrahmanyam Sanjay (1990). The Political Economy of Commerce: South Asia, 1500-1600. Cambridge UP;  Habib Irfan and Raychaudhuri Tapan (1982). Numerous articles inThe Cambridge Economic History of India.

[8] Etienne Gilbert (2007). Chine-Inde, la grande compétition. Paris: Dunod, 224 p, (p. 32). The author cites the existence of a 7 meter high iron pillar in Delhi which, after 2000 years, shows no trace of coal and whose casting would have been impossible in Europe until the 19th century.

[9]For further explanations on these estimations see La consommation mondiale des sources d’énergie 1800-2000, les sources d’information, or, specifically on India: Revelle Roger (1976). Energy Use in Rural India, Science, vol. 192, June, pp. 969-975.

[10] Prakash Om (1998). European commercial enterprise in pre-colonial India. The new Cambridge history of India, II.5. Cambridge University Press, 377 p.

[11] Pomeranz Kenneth. Une grande divergence, op. cit, pp. 259-288, 326. The author draws, among others, on the work of K.N. Chaudhuri, most of it published by Cambridge University Press.

[12]Bengal at that time included present-day Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and part of Madras.

[13]Angus Maddison describes their functions as follows: “They were used both to manage industrial enterprises and to handle most of India’s international trade. They had close links with British banks, insurance companies and shipping companies. They enjoyed a near-monopoly of access to capital and their management was interlocked, giving them control over supplies and markets. They dominated foreign markets in Asia. It was easier for them to approach government officials than it was for Indians. In many ways, they were free to make decisions that favored their interests over those of shareholders. They received commissions based on gross profits or total sales and often served as commission agents for the raw materials used by the companies they managed. The class of Indian capitalists that eventually emerged was therefore highly dependent on British business capital and many industries were dominated by British companies. Examples include shipping, banking, insurance, coal, plantation crops and jute”. L’économie mondiale, op. cit, pp. 124-125.

[14] Dupuis Jacques (1996). Histoire de l’Inde. Paris: Kailash, 398 p (p. 311).

[15]  Headrick Daniel R. (1988). The Tentacles of Progress. Technology Transfer in the Age of Imperialism 1850-1940. Oxford University Press,405 p,(pp. 33-44).

[16] Headrick Daniel R. The Tentacles, op. cit, p. 56.

[17]Even if the poor quality of Indian coal means that twice as much coal is needed to obtain a given volume of energy as English coal, the price ratios are so advantageous that there is no room for doubt: between the 1840s and 1890s, the average price of Indian coal fell from 10.5 to 3.4 rupees/ton, while that of imported coal rose from 13.5 to 17 rupees/ton. Headrick Daniel R. Tentacle, op. cit, p. 282.

[18]In his famous article in the New York Daily Tribune of August 8, 1853, he wrote “that India’s railway system will indeed become the forerunner of modern industry” because “once the use of machines has been introduced into the communication system of a country which has deposits of iron and coal, it cannot be prevented from producing these machines itself”. Quoted by Sternberg Fritz (1956).Le conflit du siècle. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 670 p,(p. 38).

[19]“Indeed, the main railway centers quickly became the nucleus of a certain industrial development” (p. 81) acknowledges Charles Bettelheim, who also quotes Marx’s article and defends the thesis of Indian deindustrialisation during the first half of the 19th century. Bettelheim Charles (1962). L’Inde indépendante. Paris: A. Colin, 1962, 524 p.

[20] Tomlinson B.R. (1993). The economy of modern India 1860-1970. The new Cambridge history of India, III.3. Cambridge University Press, 234 p, (pp. 92-123).

[21] Tomlinson B.R. The economy, op. cit. pp. 123-125.

[22] Bishnupada Guha (1965). The coal mining industry (p. 303), in Singh V.B. (1965). Economic of India 1857-1956. Bombay: Allied Pub. Private Ltd, 520 p.

[23] Veron Jacques (1987). L’urbanisation indienne (1901-1981). Population, 42-3, pp. 485-502. .

[24]Munshi M.C. (1949). L’industrialisation aux Indes. Politique Etrangère, 14-5, pp. 421-440.

[25]Lanthier Pierre (2002). L’électrification de Bombay avant 1920. Le projet de Jamsetji N. Tata. Outre-Mers. Revue d’histoire, 334-5, pp. 211-233.

[26] Jones G.C. (1979). The State and Economic Development in India 1890-1947. The case of oil. Modern Asian Studies (Cambridge University Press), vol. 13, n°3, pp. 353-375.

[27]  Exploited at shallow depths for several centuries in the Yenangyaung region, Burmese oil was well known to the British who bought it to make candles. It was exploited by 24 families called the “Twinzas”. After the annexation of Upper Burma to the Indian Empire in 1886, the property of King Mindon Min was transferred to the British Crown, who granted the deposits to the Burmah Oil Company, which was formed from the Rangoon Oil Company created in Glasgow that same year. Thanks to the modernization of extraction techniques, production grew rapidly.

[28]Most “imperial gallon” data has been converted to metric tons on the very approximate basis of 250 gallons per ton, which allows comparisons with data from B.R. Mitchell, International, op. cit. pp. 288-290.

[29] Jones G.C. (1979). The State, op. cit, p. 363.

[30] Lanthier Pierre, L’électrification, op. cit, p. 215. See also Lanthier Pierre. Les quatre phases de l’histoire de l’électricité en Inde, de 1890 à nos jours (pp. 575-595), in Beltran Alain et autres (2013). Electric Worlds/Mondes électriques. Collection Histoire de l’Energie, Peter Lang.

[31]Everything that follows is taken from the articles by Pierre Lanthier, cited above.


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