The four-hour train journey from Lalmatia in Jharkhand to Farakka in West Bengal is soulful, green and quiet, but it still makes you hum one of the songs from Gangs of Wasseypur. The train gives no PNR number, but is literally a ‘Merry-Go-Round’ (MGR), perhaps because of the rhythm it brings to the dark world of coal and thermal power. A train is called MGR if it runs between coal mine and one or more power plants, owned and operated by the power producer, mostly on a round trip. Between its Kahalgaon power plant in Bihar and the Rajmahal coal mine in Jharkhand to Farakka power plant in West Bengal, the country’s largest power producer NTPC runs its own freight train to transport coal. It is also the largest MGR in the country. NTPC's MGR can be seen more than thrice every day. It was commissioned by NTPC in 1992 to reduce its reliance on the Indian Railways whose freight operations are marred by congestion especially in the eastern part of the country. Despite the power plant's proximity to the coal mine, there is still a complaint of shortage. MGR carries around 36,000 tonne of coal every day from the Rajmahal coal mine in Lalmatia owned by Eastern Coal Limited (ECL) to its plants in Farakka (2100 MW) and Kahalgaon (2340 MW), respectively. There was a landslide at the Rajmahal coal mine in December last year. This impacted the supply at Kahalgaon for three to four months. The situation has not yet improved in accordance with the recovery plans. “We can build a coal stock of close to 25 days but we are down to 6-7 days now. Our requirement per day is 38,000 tonne and we are getting between 36,000 and 40,000 tonne, which is too less for us to build a stock for the monsoon months when the mine is flooded and coal supply is scarce,” said an executive in Kahalgaon, requesting anonymity. He said coal supply through the Indian Railways has its own set of constraints. In addition to the Rajmahal mine, Kahalgaon and Farakka were allotted surplus coal from the Raniganj mine in May last year. But with congestion and scarcity of wagons for coal, the supply has been below optimum. An executive at Farakka said apart from six MGRs, the plant needs close to six rakes (train set) daily but is getting only 3.5 rakes. Till last year, the plant would build close to 3.5 million tonne of stock at its plant but this year it is down to 800,000 tonne. The company's decision to stop coal imports has hit operations, said an official. Requesting anonymity, senior executives said imported coal acted as a cushion whenever domestic supply was down. The Centre had directed more than a year back that none of the state-owned power units would import coal, putting domestic supply under pressure. Approximately 8-10 per cent of the imported coal used to be blended, depending on the season. This was the thumb rule for NTPC across the country. With imported supply declining, this demand pressure was on the domestic supply chain. This additional demand is a large amount for Coal India and the Railways to manage suddenly,” said an official in Jharkhand. The inland waterway route, which was opened for transporting coal to Farakka, remains a non-starter.
NTPC Farakka is planning to sign MoU with the Inland Waterways Authority of India to transport fly ash, a coal residue after it has been washed, through inland waterway. Barely 100 kms away from the Rajmahal coal mine, the Farakka power plant is planning to import coal again, said sources. But that’s just one of the problems it faces. Every year, during the March-May period, Farakka has to share Ganga water with Bangladesh as part of the 1996 India-Bangladesh Water Treaty. Last year, the tunnel water level went down drastically leading to shutdown of five out of six units. This year, the situation has improved with only one unit shut and another running at half the capacity. As Farakka and Kahalgaon are close to coal mines and operational for more than 20 years, they have to put emission control systems. Officials in Kahalgaon said they have set up ‘Electro-Static Precipitator (ESPs) system’ for emission control and it would be expanded further. He did not share the cost. In Farakka, however, the unit is looking at an increase of Rs 0.85-1.45 per unit on the power sale price as a result of expenditure on the emission control system. Older power units such as Farkka have already recovered their fixed cost. An official said it is the government’s prerogative to choose emission control over power cost and they are complying by it. “As solar costs fall, an increase in thermal power cost now is not a good sign. But then, coal is the backbone. The final price which a consumer pays is not what we hold control on,” he said. At the Rajmahal coal mine, the adjoining villages continue to ‘steal’ coal from the mine/stock yard in broad daylight. A group of women and young kids carry coal in their small baskets. No official stops them, saying it will cause local resistance which a mine cannot afford. These villages were offered LPG cylinders but most of them don’t care for refill. Same is for electricity connection. As per the SAUBHGYA dashboard, Godda district has 66 per cent electrification with 90,000 households yet to get electricity connections. Lalmatia falls under Godda district. Local officials say the people stealing coal might be a part of a larger black marketing but there is no way to ascertain its total value. Godda is a Naxalite prone area and both NTPC as well as ECL don’t meddle with them. Both companies refused to comment on the matter. At the very heart of the ‘energy house’ of India, a lot remains unanswered, just as Sneha Khanwalkar's Kala Rey song (a lament about a lady's beau indulging in black marketing of coal) in the Gangs of Wasseypur.