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Mumbai: A recurring coal shortage has crippled power production across the country. Incompetent management of coal – both production and its accompanying transportation and logistics – has led to a crunch in a country where 70% of the power demand is met by thermal power stations.
Consequently, large parts of India have to put up with load shedding during a searing heatwave.
Interestingly, former coal secretary Anil Swarup saw a coal crisis coming way back in 2017, when Coal India managers were being put to the task of scouting for locations and supervising the building of toilets under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.
Writing in his book Ethical Dilemmas of a Civil Servant, Swarup in a chapter titled “Shit happens” rues over how the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan hijacked CIL managers who should have been supervising the work of coal digging for digging of soak pits. In an interaction with journalist Karan Thapar for The Wire last year, Swarup candidly calls these soak pits “shitholes”.
“As Coal India was preparing itself to enhance excavation of coal to reach record highs during the next financial year, came this much-needed focus on ‘Swachh Bharat’. However, whether the officers of the PSU (Coal India) should have been driven to treat this as a priority instead of focussing on coal production was the point of contention,” Swarup states in his book.
He continues, “I made my reservations known during meetings. I was all for the ‘Swachh Bharat’ movement and for voluntary monetary contribution from Coal India, but I had serious reservations about the engagement of coal mine managers to go around locating schools and supervising the building of toilets in them. This was neither their job nor their area of expertise. All this forced activity impacted coal production subsequently. I got to know of it later when I had left the Ministry to take over as Secretary, School Education and Literacy. In fact, coal production did not keep pace with the demand and crisis re-surfaced.”
Swarup goes on to attribute a number of other factors for the recurrence of the crisis, while mentioning that “the shift of focus from coal production to constructing toilets by the managers who should have been engaged in supervising of digging coal instead of supervising the digging of soak pits was certainly one of the major contributors”.
He goes on to add that, “the absence of a regular Chairman, Coal India for almost a year and the shuffling of coal secretaries didn’t help matters either”.
It was Swarup who piloted the coal ministry through the hard times in the aftermath of the Supreme Court judgment of September 2014 which saw the allocation of 214 coal blocks being cancelled in one fell swoop. Subsequently, coal production in India plummeted by an estimated 90 million tonnes and quite expectedly, states went into panic mode trying to secure an adequate supply of coal. At that time, more than 20 power plants were running on critically low levels of coal supply.
Swarup, who took charge of the coal ministry during these testing times, helped the government steer through the shortage. His efforts led to a surge in coal production in FY14-15 by 34 million tonnes, which was higher than the total increase in the previous four years. In FY15-16, coal production further ramped up by another 44 million tonnes. Of these times, Swarup observes, “the crisis had been successfully managed and now no power plant was critical for want of coal. The import of coal came down substantially and Coal India was even toying with the idea of exporting coal to Bangladesh.”
Currently, 108 out of 173 thermal power plants have critically low inventories of coal. The situation had aggravated to such an extent that the government has been forced to cancel 13 pairs of express and eight pairs of passenger trains in order to ensure priority transfer of coal wagons. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has also contributed to coal prices sky-rocketing. As per a Reuters report, electricity supply in the first 27 days of April fell short of the market demand by 1.88 billion units.