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Coal Shortage? India has Estimated Total Reserves of 300 Billion Tonnes

India needs diligent planning and efficient management of coal mines.

There was a flurry of newspaper reports on the coal shortage and the power crisis in the last few weeks. Is this for real or only meant to create an ecosystem to continue the use of this dirty fuel and provide benefits to certain vested interests?

The power minister denied that there is no coal shortage. However, in contrast to his statement, the government allowed a 10% increase in production beyond the authorised capacity as “special dispensation” without an impact assessment and application of rules on consulting local residents. The government also urged state governments to ramp up coal imports. Several passenger trains were disrupted or stopped to prioritise coal.

Let us look at the context of non-coking coal, or thermal coal, which is needed for power generation. India has, as of now, proved reserves of nearly 150 billion tonnes of coal. The estimated total reserves are more than 300 billion tonnes. Therefore, there is no shortage of resources.

The current need for thermal coal is less than 700 million tonnes per annum. We have licensed and opened mines which have a capacity to produce nearly 1.5 billion tonnes. Thus, the cry that there is a delay in land acquisition, environment and forest clearances and citing low capacity to allow indiscriminate expansion or imports is irrational and not based on facts.

There is another very important aspect in the rationalisation of coal mining in the context of environmental and biodiversity losses. Coal India is making losses in more than 200 mines to the tune of Rs 12,500 crore. This is not transparent as granular mine level profit and loss data is not in the public domain. It is hidden behind the huge profits the company shows annually. We can close these and use the resources to rehabilitate the workers and for effective mitigation of environmental impacts thereby restoring the livelihood of local communities.

The country has more than 400 coal mines. However, the top 26 mines have the capacity to produce all the coal required. Another 25 could fulfil our needs till 2030. This will reduce the footprint of impact and can be manged efficiently.

We should stop pock-marking the country to open up every mineral deposit we know considering that minerals are non-renewable in the first place.

Let us look at the power capacity. We have more than 4.01 million MW capacity for power production. On May 16, after meeting the demand of 1.97 million MW during the peak day at noontime, there was a surplus of 6,494 MW.

If we look at the atrocities committed on tribes in the name of coal mining for development, the humungous pollution we see in the coal and thermal power-producing areas and the reality of the coal, it is critical and urgent we completely overhaul our coal and thermal power industry. This calls for rationalising coal mines in terms of the number of mines and the methods of managing production, and their pricing to reflect the real costs.

We do not need more hard infrastructure but diligent planning and efficient management. Unfortunately, the narrative of shortages is being fed into our minds without evaluating the real reasons and solutions. Unless we recognise and rectify this drama of monsoon and summer shortages, mindless expansion and uneconomic imports will continue to plague us.

The writer is the managing trustee of Environics Trust, New Delhi.

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