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Coal Mining and the Blue Ocean Strategy

By Benjamin Lyngdoh


We are caught in the whirlwind of coal mining with no end in sight. On one hand, the state government is vociferously defending and trying all ends up to lift the ban on coal mining (for obvious electoral promises made and gains expected [read Lok Sabha, 2019]). However, alas! It has admitted to illegal coal mining and the fish is out of the water. Concurrently, there are aggressive stakeholders with no fear or respect for the rule of law carrying out terrifying attacks on civil society. Add to this, the so called nexus/collusion amongst groups across levels ranging from the politicians to the police to local governance to private mine owners. The result of all this is a series of claims and counter claims, attacks and allegations, covert and overt operations to unethically win the case/arguments of the day. Amidst this myriad cocktail of coal disoriented drunkenness, the tragedy at Ksan was just waiting to happen.

Scarily, numerous indicators indicate that Ksan is not the first tragedy of its kind. Accidents like these are not new; however, they go unknown/unreported/unrecorded. Sadly, if things continue the way they are, Ksan will not be the last either. Importantly, caught in this whirlwind of coal mining are the real sufferers who are genuinely hard hit by this impasse. These are the marginal laborers/daily wage earners/underprivileged. They mainly comprise of the youth under conditions of scarce employment thriving for competencies and capabilities to earn a livelihood and have a decent living. It is these people we must care for and plan on ways and means and schemes to give them a platform for gainful employment with a dignified life. As such, I place the following pointers –

Firstly, we are a people habituated to surviving in a ‘pond-like mentality’. We tend to take pride in it. We limit ourselves to it across plans and discourse and debate. As a community we proudly go circling around the pond and think of it as the be all and end-all of the world; not realizing that there are ‘oceans’ for real. If anything, this coal mining issue(s) is a perfect depiction of our pond-like mentality. Point being, how much longer are we going to debate on the limitations and ill-effects of coal mining? Have we not done enough of debate and thereby recognized the cost-benefits trade-off of coal mining? Are we willing to deteriorate our sustainable future against a windfall of economic gains of a few years (if against all hope coal mining is at all lifted)? The more we embroil ourselves in such debates the more time we lose and the more rigid we become to the extent of alienating our visions from other more fruitful/profitable professions. That being so, we are going from bad to worse. We are moving from a ‘pond-like mentality’ to an ‘ostrich mentality’ whereby we delve our heads deep into the ground so as not to see or are unwilling to see the possibilities around us. As such, it is high time that we move from coal mining and start looking at other employment and livelihood opportunities on a serious and strategic note. It is time that we not only ‘think out of the box’; rather it is time to ‘move out of the box altogether’.

Secondly, how do we go about conceptualizing ‘alternatives’ to coal mining? To this end, there is one guide (apart from others). It is titled ‘Blue Ocean Strategy’ authored by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne published by Harvard Business Review in the year 2004 (with an expanded edition published in 2015). The crux-of-the-matter argument of the book circles around ‘exploring into new markets, opportunities and possibilities while unlocking new demands and creation of value for the benefit of all stakeholders’. It concerns the ‘doing of something new’ in a new environment/system. It is about ‘moving away from current modes and practices’ and thriving and strategizing for alternatives which are far more sustainable; both economically and socially. If anything at all, the arguments presented by the authors reliably highlight that it is indeed possible to move from the ‘old into the new’; just will-power across all stakeholders is required. As such, it is time as a state that we do a serious brainstorming and strategize the ‘blue ocean’ way.

As a state we have numerous missions ranging from Lakadong turmeric to Aqua to Milk to Mushroom to Jackfruit with numerous other projects through government departments. These are to be comprehensively and holistically implemented in a supplementary manner while also looking into new employment avenues other than coal mining. For this to happen, a change in mind-set across all stakeholders and political will is a must.

Thirdly, how do we construct ‘blue ocean strategy’? Well, there are a number of elements/frameworks associated to it. At the outset, there is innovation. For innovation to happen, it is critical that we understand our current status and the cost-benefits out of that status. This status can be employment/livelihood/environment/governance/macro systems and so forth. Consequently, we innovate and come up with a new idea/proposition/plan/model of development. The point to be noted here is that innovation comes with ‘a certain degree of risk’ (not uncertainty; else it is not innovation). Point being, risk cannot be mitigated completely; but uncertainty can. Hence, the million dollar question; Are we willing to be innovative as a people? Do we take a risk towards a new horizon altogether? Be that as it may, ‘blue ocean strategy’ requires four basic processes towards being innovative. It starts with ‘addressing’ the questions and issues at hand. In the context of coal mining, the questions invariably concern safety, security, employment, returns, environmental degradation, long-term health of the state, other viable livelihood options and so forth. This is followed with ‘elimination’ of practices and industries which do not work and which are unsustainable. Then there is ‘reduction’ of investments/interventions that do not yield meaningful returns. At the end, we have ‘creation’ of a new mode of economy and employment. This is where we are supposed to be; the stage of ‘creation’. Worryingly, we are still stuck at the stage of ‘addressing’ (since 2014) with no end in sight. One can only wonder; when do we learn?

Lastly, coal mining is now at the hands of the Hon’ble Courts, the NGT and the central government. Our state government is primarily a ‘sitting-duck’. What will be the outcome is anybody’s guess. Further, the recent affidavit submitted by the Ministry of Coal (Government of India) in the Hon’ble Supreme Court to exempt Meghalaya from central mining acts has set the cat amongst the pigeons. In our land tenure system where land is primarily private/clan owned, the coal miners will be having a field day. Couple this with the lifting of coal mining (if it happens), then the worst is yet to come. Hence, do we welcome the ‘worst’ or do we look towards innovation? Nonetheless, it is true that efforts are being made to move beyond coal (in certain pockets). However, we have a long way to go; and the comprehensive way to go is the ‘blue ocean strategy’ mode. If that be so, then in the long-run we can think of a ‘Blue Ocean Shift’ (written by the same authors and published in the year 2017). The ‘shift’ here refers to moving from the good to the better to the best (across socio-economic conditions). Notably and in the context of Meghalaya, we have to grapple with ‘strategy’ first. The ‘blue ocean shift’ construct is at the moment too far-off and by all means it will not happen in our lifetime.

(The Author teaches at NEHU)

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