Coal transport in the country is set for a major change, and this will happen largely due to changing dynamics of the demand for and supply of coal.

Fuelled by burgeoning energy requirement, inevitable in a growing economy, the coal demand is steadily rising but with no matching increase in production. By the end of the 12th Plan in 2016-17, the country's coal demand is projected to rise to nearly 1,000 million tonnes (mt) but production to around 750 mt. The gap is to be bridged by import.

At present, the annual coal import is estimated at 130 mt, the bulk of which, over 90 mt, is for the power sector, followed by steel sector, about 30 mt or so, and the balance for other sectors.

By the end of the 12{+t}{+h} Plan, the annual import for the power sector alone might be around 130 mt and for the steel sector another 70 mt, thus totalling more than 200 mt. By 2030, coal import for the power sector alone might rise to 400 mt, according to a UK-based consultant, which is of the view that India will overtake Japan as the second largest importer of sea-borne thermal coal. The figure could be higher if the country's shoddy infrastructure does not improve.

The large-scale import will entail a shift in transport — from ex-colliery to ex-port, rendering port connectivity critical. It is already visible.

Is the railways ready?

The questions which, therefore, arise are: How to ensure faster and efficient evacuation of imported coal out of ports? What is the present state of port-level connectivity? What more needs to be done?

Is the Railways, generally the first choice as a mode for transport of dry bulk, ready for the emerging challenge? Probably not, due to various reasons, mostly related to capacity constraints caused by the resources crunch.

If coal import rises steadily without commensurate increase in the export of bulk commodities, then the Railways will be required to move more empties into the ports and will, thus, add to the cost.

It is already happening now, with the sharp drop in iron ore exports. But then, placing empties at the ports is like placing empties at the mines for loading and in the absence of export traffic, the detention of rakes at the ports is low, reducing the average turnaround time.

Which means if iron ore exports pick up in future, the Railways will move loaded wagons into the ports and will, thus, cut down on costs of moving empties but will face the prospects of more detention of rakes at the ports.

The Railways has in place a logistics plan linking ports with power-generating stations using imported coal but the plan needs an upgrade. For example, a power plant in central India keen to import coal through an east coast port might be asked to opt for a west coast port simply because it suits the Railways' plan.

The coal movement to power plants is governed by fuel-supply agreement but no such agreement exists for imported coal. Also, the Railways is still to work out a clear-cut freight movement policy in respect of private ports, many of which, such as Dhamra and Gangavaram on the east coast and Mundra on the west, are handling large quantities of imported coal.

The rail connectivity to these ports is treated as private siding. Capping it all, any import plan is subject to plethora of uncertainties caused by volatility in global prices, fluctuations in exchange rates and irregularity in supplies due to vagaries of weather and unexpected political developments and other factors.

The problems facing domestic coal movement are no less. First, the shortage. For whatever reasons, the targeted coal production could not be achieved in the 11th Plan, unlikely to be achieved in 12th Plan either. In fact, Coal India Ltd itself plans to import coal to bridge the demand-supply gap.

POSSIBLE solutions

The Korba (Chhattisgarh) and Ib Valley (Odisha) mines served by South East Central Railway, Talcher mines (Odisha) by East Coast Railway and North Karanpura mines (Jharkhand) by East Central Railway have emerged as the major coal loading points.

Even if production of these mines increases substantially, the capacity constraints and inadequate infrastructure will prevent the Railways from transporting seamlessly the increased volumes to meet the requirements of new power plants coming up across the country.

According to one estimate, an additional 65,000 MW to 70,000 MW of thermal power capacity is to be created during the 12th Plan period, pushing up the coal demand by an additional 250 mt . Three railway networks — Mand-Raigad in Chhattisgarh, Bhupdevpur-Manoharpur in Odisha, and Tori-Shivpuri-Hazaribagh in Jharkhand (each about 100-km long) — have been identified to facilitate transport of the projected volume but ,with the Land Acquisition Bill yet to be presented before Parliament, there will be delay in getting land for the projects.

environmental issues

Next, environmental issues and forest clearances are huge stumbling blocks and finally, there has to be convergence of minds of the Railways, Coal India and the State Governments concerned.

Such a convergence — even if it means a win-win for all as the country will get coal, the Railways the additional freight and the State Governments royalty and VAT — may not be easy to achieve.

What then are the options? Road movement is one. Many mines in remote areas not connected by rail are holding large pithead stocks. Coal India plans evacuation by road to reduce the stocks.

Some customers, without waiting for the rake allotment by the Railways, a tardy process, may opt for road movement. But road movement ,despite the advantage of door-to-door delivery, is not without problems. Apart from high cost, pollution, accidents and damage to roads caused by overloading, the transport of coal in trucks entails a much bigger loss to the economy in the form of burning of a costlier fuel to carry a cheaper one. The cost of transport is higher than the value of the cargo.

The Inland Waterways Authority of India has been struggling for the past few years to push barge transport of coal from Haldia to Farakka along the National Waterway 1 (NW1) to meet the requirement of NTPC's Farakka super thermal power plant in West Bengal. A private firm has agreed to move 3 mt annually and accordingly signed an agreement. The Waterways Authority has plans for transport of even larger quantities along the route for NTPC's plants at Kahalgaon and Barh in Bihar.

But with poor navigability of the river, multiple handling, non-availaiblity of suitable vessels and absence of shore-based facilities and various other problems, river transport, contrary to general perception, may not be an unmixed blessing.

A clearer picture will emerge once regular movement begins along NW1. One thing is certain: unless the source as well as the consumption point of coal is on the river route, the Waterways Authority will not be cost-effective.

Coastal movement

Finally, the potential of coastal movement of coal is not being exploited fully. At present, some movement takes place along the east coast, between Haldia/Paradip/Visakhapatnam and Ennore/Tuticorin to meet the requirement of the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board's power houses, but the volume is not large and the size of ships, all flying Indian flag, too, are small.

The relaxation of some of the rules might attract new operators with bigger vessels and, thus, boost coastal movement.

No wonder, the future ultra mega power projects, each of the capacity of 4,000 MW, are being set up either on the coast or on the pitheads to avoid probable uncertainty in coal transport.