From the top, the 15-million-tonne Nigahi mine in Singrauli district of Madhya Pradesh looks more like a disciplined shop-floor.

No over-crowding of tippers. People are mostly seated inside AC cabins of machines. The air is not heavy with dirt as is the norm elsewhere. The earthen haul road is so finely graded that large 170 tonne dump-trucks are moving at 50-60 kmph.

Most of them are moving the earth — that is four times the amount of coal extracted — from the strike zone to the over burden dump. The rest are carrying fuel to the enclosed crusher from where sized coal will be mechanically loaded into the wagons.

At the topmost stair of the over burden (OB) dump, spread over acres, a light shade of green marks the beginning of re-plantation. As you look farther South, the areas mined in the past are converted into thick multi-species forest.

Compact mines Welcome to Northern Coalfields Ltd, the youngest subsidiary of state-owned Coal India, producing 82 million tonnes of fuel annually, deploying 16,000 people, for pithead consumers.

With 10 compact, mechanised opencast mines that pays maximum attention in environment mitigation and dispatch a mere 9 per cent of produce by road, NCL is the showpiece of “efficient and sustainable” mining in India.

And, for those who think efficiency comes with privatisation, except for minor private participation in OB removal since 2007, NCL mines are company-operated. Ask any global mining consultant and they will tell (privately though), that NCL maintains highest standards of efficiency. The others are SAIL, NMDC and Tata Steel.

No to privatisation A N Sahay – former chairman of Mahanadi Coalfields, the largest miner in CIL family – feels, meticulous mine planning, attention to infrastructure creation, better work culture and check on unbridled privatisation, are key to NCL’s success.

Incorporated in 1985, NCL mines are located in a row to make best utilisation of the 312-square-km basin, based on a master plan drawn in the 1970s.

The expansion carried out in the 1990s through a World Bank loan, helped to adopt best practices in environment mitigation. Zero-discharge mines, strict monitoring of ground water and air quality, rainwater harvesting and green cover of 2.3 crore trees are some of the takeaways.

“We have created a younger but thicker forest than there were 30 years ago,” says B K Sharma, General Manager (Environment), NCL. He had worked in Jharkhand mines in the past.

The scene is different in other coalfields, where mines are scattered, mechanisation is half-baked, and private operators rule the roost.

Coal is produced in huge quantities and at a cheaper cost, but riding on lower wages to contractual workers and lack of environmental mitigation. Re-plantation and reclamation do happen, but, more in theory than in practice.

NCL Chairman Tapas Nag wants to maximise on this company-operated model.

“Our aim is to move over to smart-mining to improve productivity and production,” Nag says. The company is aiming to reach the 110-million-tonne production mark in three years.

Over the last year, the uptime of machines has improved from 67 per cent to 72 per cent. The target for the year is to reach 85 per cent or above.

To do that he will opt for greater use of IT, upgrading to higher capacity equipment (like 240 tonne dumper) and creating a neighbourhood of Indian vendors to ensure supply of spares to improve uptime.