September 24, 2023
Coal Crisis or Coal Scam?

Sudip Dutta

WHILE the Modi government is currently focused on promoting its self-proclaimed and highly praised role as a leader in the transition towards non-fossil fuel energy, even highlighting the project roadmap of the G-20 New Delhi declaration, a peculiar inconsistency and contradiction within the administration of the Modi government is becoming increasingly evident. This discrepancy exists between the two most critical ministries, power and coal, and it seems to openly reveal the government's eagerness to cater to their corporate interests, with a particular emphasis on Adani as the central figure.

A wide array of issues is emerging in public discourse, ranging from coal imports to green hydrogen, fossil fuels to renewables, production costs to storage, and more. These topics necessitate a comprehensive and multifaceted examination, discussion, and thorough analysis.

The highly debated issue of coal imports has once again come to fore. This occurred with a recent circular, issued on September 1, 2023, as an addendum to the earlier order dated January 9, 2023, by the ministry of power, government of India. In this directive, all domestic coal based (DCB) GENCOs, including central, state, and independent power producers, have been mandated to import and blend 4 per cent coal through an open bidding process until March 31, 2024, for thermal power generation. The stated reason for this requirement is the apparent mismatch between coal supply and demand.

Conversely, in a perplexing and somewhat amusing twist, the ministry of coal under the same government issued a press release on September 5, 2023, reiterating the ample availability of coal to meet the growing energy demand in the nation. Furthermore, the coal ministry asserted that the country had achieved record coal production and supplies, ensuring an adequate coal stockpile during the monsoon season. Consequently, coal stocks at both mine sites and in transit have seen a 39 per cent increase compared to the previous year.

The directives and statements regarding coal imports for thermal power generation issued by two different departments of the same central government are clearly contradictory, misleading, and deceptive. They do not serve the interests of energy consumers, the public, or the nation as a whole. Indeed, these conflicting actions raise legitimate concerns that there may be hidden motives at play behind the coal industry, often referred to as "black gold."

The roots of this coal import scam can be traced back to December 2021. It was during this time that the controversial Adani Carmichael coal mine in Queensland, Australia, sent out its first shipment of coal for India. The Adani Carmichael coal project has gained global notoriety for its adverse environmental impact. It commenced operations bulldozing the largest mass protest in Australian history. Notably, even the State Bank of India (SBI) was compelled to extend a substantial loan for this Adani mine.

This mine stands as the world's largest contributor to CO2 emissions, emitting three times the annual emissions of New Delhi, double those of Tokyo, six times that of Amsterdam, and 20 per cent more than New York City. Furthermore, it poses a significant threat to the Great Barrier Reef.

However, the Modi government compelled public sector GENCOs like the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) and the Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC) to purchase Adani coal right from the outset. In April 2022, India was pushed towards a severe power shortage, allegedly due to a lack of coal supplies, and the Modi government instructed GENCOs to import coal for a 10 per cent blend by July 2022. Interestingly, during the same period, the ruling government asserted in the Rajya Sabha that there was no shortage of coal in the country.

The cost of imported fuel escalated to Rs 7-8 per unit, compared to the Rs 2 per unit cost from the domestic Coal India Ltd (CIL). This surge in expenses had a significant impact on our flagship public sector power producer, NTPC, which reported a more than 7 per cent decline in its consolidated net profit for the September 2022 quarter as a result of the cost associated with imported coal.

Coal production and dispatch are primarily coordinated based on the projected annual power demand estimates provided by the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) and Grid India, which are the two central nodal agencies responsible for this task. Government entities such as Coal India, Railways, and state and central energy-related agencies then set their targets in accordance with the anticipated growth in power demand and domestic coal needs.

Remarkably, in the 2022-23 period, there was a year-on-year growth of 14.7 per cent, leading to a total of 893.08 million tonnes in raw coal production. Additionally, coal dispatch experienced a 7.1 per cent growth, reaching 877.50 million tonnes during the same period. Pithead coal stock saw a remarkable increase of 45.66 per cent, accompanied by a 5.80 per cent growth in coal dispatch to the power sector, resulting in a 6.58 per cent rise in thermal power generation from April to August 2023.

Furthermore, the overall coal stock position exhibited substantial growth, surging by 25.08 per cent and reaching a commendable reserve of 86.00 million tonnes on August 31, 2023, which is more than enough to cover over 40 days' worth of demand. It becomes evident that any alleged gap in coal demand and supply arises from the central government's inability to establish accurate targets and ensure adequate coal dispatch by providing sufficient transport capacity. This raises questions about the government's intentions and suggests that the coal crisis may have been planned deliberately.

Interestingly, while the power ministry is asserting that there could be a 7 million-tonne deficit of coal for power generation between October 2023 and March 2024, it is concurrently issuing directives to import approximately 20 million tonnes. It is worth noting that until 2020, the share of steam coal imports from Australia was negligible, but it surged to 13 per cent in FY22, with the majority coming from the Adani mine.

In January 2023, the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission (CERC) issued an order in response to a petition from Tata Power Company Ltd. This order sought compensation, including a reasonable profit margin, for high-priced imported coal-based (ICB) power plants belonging to private corporations such as Tata, Adani, Essar, and others. Additionally, in June 2023, the CERC put forward a proposal to introduce a high-price index specifically for Australian and South African coal. This entire scenario raises suspicions of deceit and hints at a potential connection to a single group or entity.

In a groundbreaking development, the All India Coal Workers' Federation (AICWF) and the Electricity Employees Federation of India (EEFI) made history by issuing their inaugural joint press statement on September 8, 2023. In this statement, they demanded the immediate withdrawal of the mandate for coal blending with imported coal and urged for the necessary arrangements of railway rakes to ensure the unhindered operation of Coal India Limited (CIL).

The AICWF and EEFI have called upon all sections of workers and the general public to raise their voices and expose the questionable alliance between the Modi government and its corporate cronies. This partnership is strategically impeding and obstructing the optimal utilisation of our public sector undertakings (PSUs).

On September 15, 2023, the union minister for power and new & renewable energy announced that due to India experiencing a significant surge in power demand, the most viable and promising solution is to transition to green hydrogen for storage as part of the National Green Hydrogen Mission, ensuring round-the-clock renewable energy supply. Adani New Industries, a subsidiary of Adani Enterprises, is making a substantial investment of over US 50 billion dollars in green hydrogen over the next decade and aims to develop a green hydrogen production capacity of 1 million tons per annum before 2030. This is followed by Reliance Industries, with an announced investment of Rs 75,000 crore in the same endeavor.

Undoubtedly, the entire blueprint of the coal crisis appears to be nothing short of a coal scam. This orchestrated crisis involving coal and power is undeniably linked to the government's allegiance to its corporate benefactors. The burden of high-priced electricity based on imported coal will ultimately fall on consumers, resulting in a tariff shock. This situation could have adverse effects on our foreign currency reserves and current account balance.

The transition from coal to renewables also implies a shift from public sector control to private monopolies, putting India's energy security at the mercy of a handful of corporations. The collective efforts of India's energy sector workers will serve as a check on this rapid shift towards privatisation, and it is clear that the initial steps in this struggle have begun.