Coal India is expected to end the June quarter with 18 million tonnes excess production growing 15 per cent over last year. Though there is an uptrend in production, will it sustain growth?

The reason behind the concern is its poor performance in over-burden (OB) removal. Coal mining in India is essentially opencast, where the topsoil is removed to expose and extract minerals.

At an average stripping ratio of 1:1.8, the additional production should require removing nearly double the amount of OB. On the contrary, CIL removed 0.1 per cent less OB than last year during the June quarter.

The decline is all-pervasive. In June, OB removal in CIL is down by 5.9 per cent. Northern Coalfields (NCL) is down by 16 per cent, Western Coalfields by 11 per cent, central coalfields by 4 per cent and Dhanbad-based Bharat Cocking Coal is down by 21 per cent.

Sambalpur-based Mahanadi Coalfields (MCL) is trying to reverse the trend with a 1.8 per cent increase in OB removal in June. But for the three-month period, it is down by 0.9 per cent.

Among the large mining subsidiaries, Bilaspur-based South Eastern Coalfields is an exception in maintaining robust 17 per cent growth in OB removal in June and 26 per cent for the quarter.

Safety issue

“The trend is alarming. Poor OB removal may indicate that it is producing from exposed seams. It is not exposing new seams, thereby, creating hindrance for future growth. Also there is a possibility of unsafe mining practices,” said an industry expert, who did not wish to be quoted.

The safety concern is not unfounded. While cutting open a reserve, miners create benches on the sidewall to prevent landslides. The methodology is similar to plinth work in construction.

However, miners do compromise with benching requirements to extract more coal in the face of hurdles in land acquisition and meet production targets. The fatal accident at Lalmatia mine in Jharkhand in December 2016 was primarily triggered by such unsafe mining.

CIL Chairman AK Jha was not available for comment. But company sources say the issue will be resolved in the coming months. “This is a temporary phenomenon and will not affect either production or safety,” an official said.

According to CIL sources, OB removal was hit by a host of issues ranging from failure to close tenders, excess rains, to frequent bandhs as in Odisha.