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The Centre has claimed that the Rail Roko protest organised by farmers’ organisations led to a major setback to the supply of coal to meet the shortage of the commodity and attempts to restore the power situation.

Government sources said data collected by the Railways Ministry showed that at least 46 rakes carrying about 2 lakh MT of coal to power plants were stuck as farmers held a protest on Monday over the Lakhimpur Kheri violence.

The rakes were meant for thermal power plants (TPPs) in states that have been complaining of low coal stocks and had imposed power rostering to meet the shortage.

Last week, the Centre, facing flak for the coal shortage and power crisis, said that the states failed to anticipate and prepare for increased demand for power as the economy emerged out of lockdowns and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The rail roko agitation impacted goods train movement the most in Punjab and Rajasthan. This happened at a time when the entire Central government machinery is working to meet the excess coal demand of the nation,” a senior Coal Ministry official said.

Another official said that the protesters who disrupted train traffic weren’t farmers but middlemen who used the agitation as cover. He said they squatted on railway tracks and hindered the movement of coal rakes that severely impacted coal supply to the power plants.

Power Ministry sources said 2 lakh tonnes of coal, on an average, could be used to generate 322 million units (MUs) of power.

The assessment is that a state like Punjab consumes nearly a 160 million units of power each day and the disrupted coal supply can impact two days of power demand.

The Railways Ministry said rakes were a precious commodity right now. Each rake movement is factored on an hourly basis. The rakes have to return quickly to the point from where coal is loaded so that supply can be beefed up.

“Since train movement was disrupted, the passenger trains, which get priority, were moved first after the squatters got off the tracks. So, the coal rakes had to wait for longer periods,” a Coal Ministry official said.

The Agriculture Ministry is also monitoring the power supply situation as the current paddy crop and other sowings need more power at this moment for irrigation purposes.

A senior minister in the Central government said, “It is ironic that the protesters claim to be fighting for the benefit of farmers. Their actions are bound to hurt the interest of farmers and the country as disruptions in irrigation at this juncture can cause a serious setback.”

The coal stuck in rakes had come from Coal India Limited’s mines that supply nearly 80% of India’s coal output. CIL is said to be working over time over the last few weeks to generate more coal to meet the shortages caused by low imports.

Thermal power plants in India, on an average, need 1.90 million tonnes of coal daily to fulfil their demand. They are being supplied around 2 million tonnes of coal against the demand.

Notably, the coal stock situation at thermal power plants has improved further as the number of non-pithead thermal power plants having less than four days of coal has reduced to 58 on Monday from 69 a week ago. The Centre has directed all coal producers, including CIL, SCCL and captive miners, to ramp up coal supplies so that no power plant in the country runs out of coal.

The six-hour rail blockade called by the Samyukta Kisan Morcha over the Lakhimpur violence on Monday affected rail movement at 130 locations in the Northern Railway zone and hindered the movement of passenger 50 trains.

In North Western Railway (NWR), rail traffic was affected in sections in Rajasthan and Haryana, with two trains cancelled, 13 partially cancelled and one diverted due to the protest.

The Centre has claimed that some state governments provided tacit cover to protesters to disrupt rail services and in an attempt to score political points, hurt the interest of farmers.

However, a senior Rajasthan Congress leader contested the Centre’s claim. “The Centre wants to throttle the voice of farmers. It brought three draconian farm laws and has been turning a blind eye. Farmers have a right to protest peacefully. The Centre is using the rail roko to pass on its failure to ensure coal supply,” he said.

The Centre, however, said that the coal and power crisis happened because of the state governments and the rail roko disrupted the recovery process.

REDUCED LIFTING OF COAL BY STATE POWER PLANTS

Last week, the Centre claimed that on April 2020, thermal plants in states had a stock of 45.01 MT, sufficient for 28 days, while Coal India Limited had a stock of 74.89 MT.

But on April 1, 2021, the stock in thermal plants in states was way lesser at 28.88 MT, which is sufficient only for 15 days, while Coal India Limited had a stock of 99.33 MT.

“This data shows that while in April this year, Coal India was ready with higher stock of coal, the TPPs were stocking lesser coal than even April last year when demand for power was low due to the nationwide lockdown,” a senior Coal Ministry official said.

COAL INDIA LEFT WITH SURPLUS

Due to power plants not lifting the coal being generated, CIL had accumulated a stockpile of nearly 100 MT early this year. The coal giant is said to have been forced to back down production in the peak summer months and liquidate the coal stock, which faced a high risk of catching fire in the summer heat.

Power Ministry sources said even on August 1 this year, the thermal plants had a coal stock of 24.01 MT, which was sufficient for 13 days requirement.

A senior minister said, “By August, most of the Covid-19 related restrictions were off and economic activity started returning to the pre-pandemic levels. Due to this, demand for power increased substantially in August 2021, leading to a sharp decline in stock at TPPs. The states didn’t prepare for the ramped up activity and power demand.”

GLOBAL GAS & COAL PRICE RISE

To dispel the perception against it, the Centre had said, “The demand for coal for power went up because of other reasons, like the rise in global gas prices raising the dependence on thermal power plants and states failing to anticipate and prepare for the evolving situation.”

The next factor that added to the crisis was the almost 40 per cent increase in global coal prices as the world was trying to swing back to the pre-Covid period of manufacturing and economic activity.

The Centre said that due to the tripling of global coal prices, some of the power plants dependent on imported coal scaled down imports and started pushing for more supply from the Centre.

According to estimates, the coal imports by domestic coal-based power plants (which are used for blending purpose) had reduced significantly by 12 per cent this year.

The impact of fewer imports, according to the Centre, is reflected in the decline in power generation by power plants dependent on imported coal. In the recent period, they generated only 25.6 billion units against a program of 45.7 BU.

To meet the demand-supply gap, approximately 13.4 MT of domestic coal would have been required for the power plants dependent on imported coal.

This gap had to be filled by the supply of domestic coal, which was already gearing up to meet the 24 per cent increased demand in September by domestic plants.

COAL INDIA SUPPLIED MORE THAN EARLIER

To build on its contention that Coal India didn’t falter on the supply side, the Centre said despite the coal intake regulation by the TPPs, production and supply by CIL was the highest ever in H-1 of any year so far. In H-1, CIL had supplied 308 MT, out of which more than 245 MT of coal was supplied to the power sector. The coal supplies to crucial continuous process industries of the non-power sector have also been maintained during this time.

The next crisis came in the form of prolonged monsoon and heavy rain in coal generation areas. This led to problems in the movement of coal from mines to power plants.

STATES DIDN’T USE THEIR MINES

The next charge from the Centre was that while states like Rajasthan and Jharkhand had been waging a political battle against it and announced power rostering, they did not operate the captive mines to meet the rising demand for coal and power.

“States like Jharkhand and Rajasthan have mines allotted to them. They were asked since January this year to ramp up supply from their own mines but they didn’t exploit the avenue to meet the demands of plants in their states. Instead they went public with claims of a shortage,” the Coal Ministry said.

Ironically, while states were complaining of outages, the Power Ministry on Tuesday had to ask states to utilise unallocated power of the Central Generating Stations (CGS) to meet the requirements of their own consumers.

A statement from the ministry said, “It has been brought to the notice of the Ministry of Power that some states are not supplying power to their consumers and imposing loadshedding. At the same time, they are also selling power in the power exchange at high prices.”

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