India: Coal Crisis: How private sector can power India’s growth

India has been reeling under a coal shortage crisis and the situation got aggravated in October 2021 leading to a lot of concern amongst various stakeholders including government bodies, thermal power plants, industry and investors. The shortages, triggered by global factors, of course with Indian peculiarities, threatened supplies to thermal-based power plants, leading to an alarm. Recovering from Covid-19-induced reverses, the global economy has rebounded and gathered steam. This was one of the prime reasons why there was an acute shortage of coal and sources of energy, worldwide. Global coal prices have risen by 40 per cent. Port based Indian power plants normally rely on imports. Given the global conditions, and the sharp rise in coal prices internationally, the power plants are now almost solely dependent on Indian coal. It’s in this context that the coal crisis has been amplified by various stakeholders.

While global factors did contribute, did we fail to take necessary action, over a period of time? To highlight one prominent factor: Why should the Coal India Limited have monopoly over coal mining / supplies? Consider the CIL performance in the last few years: Its output was 606 MT in 2018-2019, 602 MT in 2019-2020, and 596 MT in 2020-2021. Contrast this with various governments’ efforts to ramp up Coal production in the 1992-2010 period. So, why did Coal India Limited fail to expand capacity? This is one big question that must be debated. It can therefore be argued that CIL’s monopoly on coal extraction and supplies (till very recently) is one of the prime reasons why India’s thermal power plants faced a coal crisis. India has the world’s fourth-largest coal reserve, with around 300 billion tonnes of coal. But it is also true that it imports approximately 250 million tonnes of coal. This is because we don’t mine enough and use our resources optimally.

CIL supplies 80 per cent of India’s coal needs. The demand for coal in India is nearly a billion tonnes a year, and the supply is below 800 million tonnes. Unfortunately, based on then CAG Vinod Rai’s miscalculations and the Notional Loss theory, the Supreme Court cancelled 214 coal blocks in September 2014. Private players were not given a patient hearing on the issue. Rather than encouraging them, the private sector got punished unfairly for its efforts to strengthen the economy through coal mining. If 100 out of 214 of those mines were functional and each one was producing, say, 4 mtpa of Coal, India today would be a net exporter, not importer, of Coal. Rai’s theory and the Supreme Court judgment had devastating consequences. The coal production in the country took a hit. The country’s GDP declined by almost 1 per cent. Millions of jobs were lost. NPAs of banks with exposure to power, steel and mining sector rose exponentially. Such is Rai’s credibility that he recently tendered an apology to a Congress leader, who, Rai claimed in his book, “requested him to remove then PM Manmohan Singh’s name from the coal scam”. Taking a cue, if someone sues Rai for his Coal Scam theory and numbers, would he be able to defend his report in court?

Against the recommendations of CAG of incentivizing good performers who produce coal, the Supreme Court imposed an additional levy of 295 rupees per ton on the coal extracted from operational mines retrospectively from 1993. The private miners were directed to deposit more than Rs. 9000 crore as penalty. The stagnating CIL coal output should be seen in this background. Being a monopoly, CIL could have been a saviour for the nation. CIL however neither ramped up production nor invested in technology or expansion of new mines. In 2020, in a bold and much welcome development, the Union Government opened up commercial coal mining, thus ending Coal India’s monopoly. PM Modi said that he wanted India to be a net exporter of coal, as he set ambitious targets. A lesson from the recent crisis is this – the CIL monopoly, along with the no-entry sign for the private sector, harmed the country.

There are lessons to be drawn from the opening up of the aviation sector for the recent coal crisis episode. With a series of measures, the aviation sector was opened up, with the Air India privatisation being the latest example. The economy, the nation and consumers benefitted. When sectors as diverse as Steel, Infrastructure and Healthcare were unshackled, the end consumer, the economy and the nation benefitted. Similarly, if the private sector in coal mining would have been encouraged consistently, and ill-advised measures like cancellation of coal blocks not taken, the coal situation would not have come to such a pass. In 2014, the private sector was said to be accounting for 90 million tons of coal – a substantial figure. Instead of getting encouraged, the private sector had to fight protracted court cases and spend its time wastefully. There’s a consensus that Coal would continue to power economic growth for a country like India for the next two decades. It’s important that this abundantly-available natural resource is used optimally. The Private Sector can play a key role here. The Government has shown intent and commitment. It’s time for all the stakeholders to ensure that the country faces no shortage of Coal hereafter. It’s time we all learnt our lessons and ensure that Coal and Mining booms and fires India’s growth march.