Cheaper mode of transport than roads

NTPC Limited, the country’s largest state-owned power utility, has to opt for large-scale barge movement of coal from the unloading ports to the plants located near the river front, as it steps up coal imports in to meet the projected jump in fuel requirement. The signs are already visible.

Reports point out that the Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) will soon invite Expressions of interest for barge movement of imported coal on the Sandheads (mouth of the Hooghly river) — Barh (Bihar) stretch (1,100 kms) of the 1620-km long National Waterway Number 1 (NW 1, Haldia to Allahabad) for NTPC’s Barh plant. Earlier, IWAI had firmed up similar arrangement to facilitate coal movement along a 700-km stretch (Sandheads to Farakka) of the NW1 to meet the requirement of NTPC’s Farakka plant (West Bengal).

The private logistics service provider that has secured the Farakka coal transportation contract is believed to be working on the project, which involves deployment of a transhipper at the Sandheads, acquisition of a large number of barges of the capacity not less than 1,500 tonnes each, construction of the coal handling terminal on the river front close to the plant and construction of the conveyor system from the river front jetty to the coal stockyard within the plant. The total cost is estimated at Rs 650 crore. For Barh coal transportation project, the cost is estimated at Rs 1,100 crore.

Expanding facility

NTPC has sounded IWAI to examine the scope of barge transportation of coal for its other plants located at Kahalgaon in Bhagalpur,Bihar ( 2,340 MW), Unchahar in Rai Bareily, Uttar Pradesh, (1,050 MW) and also for new plants due to come up at Nabinagar in Aurangabad, Bihar ( 3 x 660 MW) and Meja in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh (2 x 660 MW).

NTPC is also exploring barge movement of coal, both imported and domestic, for its Bongaigaon plant (3 x 250 MW) at Salakati in Kokrajhar, Assam. The original plan was to use the state’s Margherita coal along with coal from Eastern Coalfields Ltd (ECL). But with the sulphur content of Margherita coal and the ash content of ECL coal being high, there is a proposal to supplement the domestic availability with imported variety. Initially, the volume of import may be small, around five lakh tonnes, which is likely to increase gradually. IWAI has been asked to create facilities.

Thus, IWAI will be required to construct a jetty on the bank of the Brahmaputra river ( NW 2, Dhubri to Sadiya, 891 kms) at Jogighopa, which is about 35 kms from the plant site, conveyor system, coal handling equipment, and railway siding, in addition to adopting bank protection measures. The cost is to be borne by the Union Government, either through the Department of North Eastern Region or other sources.

Creating infrastructure

NTPC will be responsible for arranging barge movement of imported coal to Jogighopa by waterways (part of which will be through Bangladesh) and rail transportation of coal from Jogighopa to the plant site. It is learnt that NTPC will do it through a bidding process. It might be noted that inland water transport is covered under the Government’s transport subsidy scheme for the North East.

Should the situation so warrants, barge movement of coal may also be needed between Dhamra/Paradip ports and NTPC’s Talcher plants along the National Waterway Number 5, which is an integration of East Coast Canal with Brahmani and Mahanadi river systems in Odisha, covering a total length of 620 kms. At Talcher, located close to the Brahmani river, NTPC runs two power plants — 3,000 MW (6 x 500 MW) super thermal power station at Kanhia and in the vicinity a much smaller (460 MW) unit taken over from the then Orissa State Electricity Board in 1995. Both have capacity expansion plans. Right now coal is sourced from Mahanadi Coalfields's Talcher mines often victims of irregular production and uncertain transportation .

Cheaper transport

NTPC’s plan for large-scale barge movement of coal, particularly imported coal, is not surprising. The import this fiscal is likely to be around 16 million tonnes (MT), up from last fiscal’s 12 MT, or a 33 per cent jump. Various reports suggest that NTPC is keen to enter into a long-term import contracts for an assured supply of coal to meet the projected jump in coal demand due to come up in next few years. The present capacity of about 38,000 MW is likely to be added by another 4,000 MW in the current fiscal and by an additional 14,000 -15,000 MW in the 12{+t}{+h} Plan. According to one estimate, if the present domestic coal availability is any indication, NTPC’s coal import will rise to 10 times the present level in another 15 to 20 years.

But then it is not enough to import (assuming port facilities will be adequate to handle the projected volume); the evacuation of the import out of the port area is equally important.

Evacuation by road is costly; more important, it will mean burning a costlier fuel to carry cheaper mineral. The rail movement is ruled out in view of capacity constraints. So, barge movement appears to be the only option left.

Barge movement, however, has its own pitfalls. Maintaining the navigability of the river routes can be a difficult proposition. It is already proving to be so in the case of NW 1. Transferring coal from NW 1 to NW 2, for sending imported coal from Haldia to Bongaingaon thermal plant, may cause no less headache.

Part of the route goes through Bangladesh. India’s experience of transiting through Bangladesh river route has not always been happy.

The present not-too-happy condition of the Farakka Barrage poses a big challenge to barge movement beyond Farakka on the NW1. Most important, the inland water transportation can never be a viable option unless the points of generation and delivery of cargo are located close to the river.

Cargo movement by river route will become unviable if it also involves long road and rail movement in either direction.

Meanwhile, there is talk of granting subsidy for fertiliser movement on NW1. An estimated 1.5 lakh tonnes of urea are proposed to be moved by river from IFFCO’s Phulpur plant (UP) and another one lakh tonnes from Tata Chemicals plant at Haldia (West Bengal) for distribution in 105 blocks in Bihar and West Bengal.

santanu.sanyal@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on September 16, 2012)
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