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The danger for coal

By T V R Shenoy
August 19, 2005 16:35 IST

Did anyone get up at seven o' clock on August 15 to catch the Prime Minister's performance atop the Lahore Gate? If not, I assure you that you did not miss much. When a trained economist is forced to steal the BJP's thunder and focus on Pakistan-based terrorism everyone gets the message -- the Left Front will veto any serious attempts at economic reform.

Nor did the Congress president, the leader of the Opposition, and most of the other dignitaries have anything particularly innovative to say. There was one sterling exception, the President.

Addressing the country on August 14, Professor A P J Abdul Kalam put the spotlight on a single issue, namely energy. He is absolutely right, this is one thing that affects us all whether in urban or in rural India. Are we doing enough to ensure India's energy security?

Discussions on energy tend to focus on the price of international crude. I have two points to make on this. First, there is precious little that India can do to affect prices, whether they stay at their current levels or even if they rise above the US $70 mark.

Second, please remember that oil accounts for just about 30 per cent of India's energy needs, less than a third of the total. So what makes up the rest? In a word: coal. Well over half of India's energy requirement is met by coal (between 55 per cent and 70 per cent depending on which statistics you read).

Very simply put, we may survive the peaks and valleys of the petroleum price index but we are in a lot of trouble if the coal industry takes a hit. And believe me, trouble is just around the corner!

No government has done anything worthwhile to increase coal production for the last twenty years. When was the last time that a colliery was opened, or new surveys conducted, or new research tested to draw coal from low-yield seams? Whether Congress, or BJP, or United Front, the coal industry has been treated as a cash cow to be milked while the good times last. If anything, there was a silent agreement that the best thing to do was to perpetuate shortage.

Shortage translates into higher prices and corruption, more money for both the coal mafia and its abettors amongst the political and bureaucratic classes. The low priority given to the coal industry becomes apparent when you consider the quality of the ministers assigned to it in the Union Cabinet.

The eighteen months of United Progressive Alliance rule, for instance, have seen no less than three men take charge of the Union coal ministry, Shibu Soren, Dr Manmohan Singh himself, and now Dasari Narayana Rao. Of these, the prime minister can hardly do justice to an administrative department given all his other preoccupations. And Rao, who is currently the minister of state, comes from a background as far removed from the grime of coal as possible, he is a film-maker from Andhra Pradesh.

The dirty little secret doing the rounds in Delhi -- 'secret' because nobody wants to talk about it -- is that Dasari Narayana Rao has driven his coal secretary, Prakash Chandra Parakh, to take leave. It made the headlines when the Bihar chief secretary did the same thing to protest Governor Buta Singh's high-handed attitude, so why is nobody speaking about squabbles in the very heart of Delhi? The coal secretary has already expressed his views "through proper channels".

That is fine, but I think we should know what drove him to protest. Frankly, the only imagination and drive shown by successive Union coal ministers has been dedicated to the pursuit of wasting public money. Everyone knows that the Chhota Nagpur plateau -- chiefly Jharkhand but extending across several states -- is the major source of India's coal. So why is coal transported by rail all the way to Punjab to be refined? (The coal ministry's official site does not even list Punjab as one of the thirteen states with significant coal reserves.)

Wouldn't it make more sense to set up refineries and thermal plants in Chhota Nagpur itself rather than get the Railways to ship coal across northern India? Economics apart, the logic of setting up plants so close to the Pakistan border is something only ministers and civil servants understand!

It gets worse. Despite hard coal reserves around 246 billion tonnes, India is now reduced to importing coal. Let me say that again, despite having enough coal to last for a couple of centuries we are wasting foreign exchange to get coal from abroad. Privatising mining would pump in resources and create jobs, but apparently everyone who objects to this sees nothing wrong in buying privately-mined coal from abroad. And of course lack of domestic coal also leads to greater dependence on imported petroleum, the costlier option.

And how do we import coal? Not through an open market system where everyone tries to get the sanest price but through the Government of India deciding that a single nodal agency will do the job for everyone. (I understand that MMTC [Mineral & Metals Trading Corporation of India] is most likely to get the job.)

It goes without saying that the imported coal is not used at power plants near the ports but driven by rail into the interior. No effort has been lost in wasting time and money!

Dr Manmohan Singh is a trained economist. He has himself been in charge of the coal ministry. The least that was expected of him was that he would end the civil war in the department between Dasari Narayana Rao and Prakash Chandra Parakh. It is hypocrisy to speak of infrastructure reform when a nodal ministry is in shambles.

Power in the political lexicon means 'ministerial office', to the rest of us it means things like electricity. Without coal, the lights will be going out all over India -- and the prime minister is doing nothing about it.

Tailpiece: I have had very little time to catch up, and respond to readers' comments lately. This is a grab-bag based on comments from several weeks.

On 27 July, 2005, Sameer wrote: "Furthermore, some news for you, the punishment for apostasy from Islam, NEED NOT be killing the individual practising it as per the Islamic teachings. Go out and try to find, you will get some good number of Muslim Cleric condemning it!"

My response: Please read. Mawdudi's place in the development of current Islamic thoughts can be easily found with a little help from Google.

On 26 July, 2005, Yasin wrote: "How dare a write can write hindu indian and muslim paki???"

My response: Please go back and read the complete text. I was referring to the commonly held British perception equating India with Hindus and Pakistan with Muslims. If that troubles you, spare your rhetoric for the British.

On 26 July, 2005, DSK Rao wrote: "Though I condemn terrorism which targets innocent people, it may be noted that terrorism is not a new thing to UK with IRA playing the key role (which has nothing to do with RELIGION!)."

On 26 July, 2005, Mrinal posted: "...the happenings of world war 2 were done by a different stream of people, Buddhism which is one of the most non violence propogating eligions of the world was one of the main religions in Japan."

My response: Actually, religion had a lot to do with the creation of the IRA; that group was founded to undo the partition of Ireland, something that happened because the Protestants of Ulster refused to join the Catholics in the rest of the country. Japan's national religion before and during World War II was not Buddhism but Shinto; one of the first things the Americans did when they wrote the Japanese constitution was to remove Shinto from this exalted status.

In any case, Buddhism preaches moderation, not absolute non-violence. For an interesting take on Japanese Buddhism and the question of ethics in Buddhism in general, please read.

On 8 July, 2005, Taj posted: "Mr. Shenoy, I don't think the House of Commons was exactly reduced to a rubble during World War 2"

My response: I was writing from memory, but I am happy to say that it has served me well enough. I quote from 'The Grand Alliance', the third volume in Churchill's 'History of the Second World War' on the Blitz of 10 May, 1941: In other respects also it was historic. It destroyed the House of Commons. One single bomb created ruin for years."

Sadly, memory does not always conduct itself so well. Yes, Vijetha, the Dumbledore quote appeared in Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets rather than Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. And yes, the Tsunami from the skies descended on Mumbai in July, not in August, as more than one reader pointed out. My apologies.

T V R Shenoy