“I can say that a nationwide strike is on and this the biggest one since 1977,” Gurudas Dasgupta, general secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), told AFP after last-ditch talks to avert the stoppage failed.
Dasgupta was speaking on behalf of the five unions which represent the 3.7 million workers on the payroll of state-run Coal India, which has a near monopoly over production.
Unions fear that any move to privatise the coal industry could lead to job cuts.
Coal India has been under pressure for years to increase production, with the country’s rapid industrialisation leading to ever-rising demand.
No one from the management of Coal India was immediately available for comment but reports said that unions would be meeting government officials within the next 24 hours.
India’s new right-wing government pledged in October to open up the coal mining 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 decree 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.
India imports vast quantities of coal, despite sitting on the world’s fifth largest reserves.
Coal provides nearly 60 percent of India’s electricity generating needs, but the power sector relies heavily on imports of the fuel.
Blackouts are common across India, especially during peak summer months, amid surging demand including from a fast-rising middle class.
There are also fears that a lack of power at the height of winter could put lives at risk as temperatures often drop to below freezing in some parts of northern India.
A prolonged strike would run the real risk of triggering outages since many power stations are already operating on dangerously low supplies, an analyst at an equities house told AFP, requesting anonymity. -AFP