Coal black market may weigh in @60 mt a year

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13% CIL output worth $1.5b being pilfered

Every night, about 30 tractors loaded with coal arrive at the edge of a forest in eastern India. A fleet of trucks, engines and lights switched off, is waiting to ferry the cargo to the country’s biggest black market for the fuel in Varanasi.

Stolen coal from Coal India (CIL) mines and other quarries may reach as much as 60 million tonnes a year, about 13 per cent of the annual output for the world’s biggest producer, according to Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt, a senior fellow at Australian National University’s Crawford School in Canberra. It’s worth about $1.5 billion and is a small but growing part of the widespread energy theft that reduces GDP by more than 1 per cent a year.

Coal theft starts with individuals who fill sacks with the fuel and deliver it by bicycle to depots run by the local mafia. It’s then ferried to a nearby forest on tractors, a trip that often requires a payment to Maoist rebels, before finally being loaded onto the Varanasi-bound trucks, according to Rahul Sinha, a sub-divisional officer of the administration at Bermo colliery in eastern Jharkhand state.

Much of the stolen coal goes to factories and brick kilns that don’t have purchase contracts with Coal India. Some finds its way to households, restaurants and local tea shops in the eastern states of Jharkhand, Odisha, Bihar and West Bengal.

“Coal India has been unsuccessful in controlling theft from its mines,” said Sinha, who has prepared a report on coal theft in the area. “I have seized at least 5,000 tonnes of stolen coal in the 10 months I have been here,” he said.

Prime minister Narendra Modi vowed during his poll campaign to curb coal theft, which has been part of his parliamentary constituency’s underground economy for decades. Domestic shortages have led to record coal imports, hurting the economy.

India paid about $158 billion for coal and crude oil imports in the year ended March 31, about 35 per cent of the country’s total import bill for the year.

The pilfered coal adds to losses from stolen diesel, gasoline and electricity. India loses about a quarter of its electricity through theft, according to government data, costing utilities almost $18.3 billion annually. That’s about 1 per cent of India’s $1.88 trillion gross domestic product.

State-run CIL’s annual output is about 463 million tonnes, which it sells for an average of about $25 a tonne. The coal would be worth more on the international market, because the company sells it domestically at a discount. Power station coal in Australia, an Asian benchmark, costs about $70 a tonne.

India’s former coal minister Sriprakash Jaiswal estimated losses from theft at as much as 15 per cent of the company’s production, in an October 2011 press interview. A month later, he told lawmakers in parliament the loss couldn’t be ascertained.

The Centre, which owns 89.7 per cent of the company, say it hasn't estimated the quantity of coal stolen from the mines. S K Srivastava, coal secretary, declined to be interviewed.

Company executives question the scale of the coal thefts.

“It can’t be disputed that some of the coal gets stolen from our stock, but the volume is not significant,” said Nagendra Kumar, technical director at CIL. “We take all possible measures to stop thefts.”

The issue is becoming more pressing as rising demand leads to shortages. Years of operational inefficiency and delays in acquiring land and environmental approvals has left CIL without new mines.

The company’s Eastern Coalfields unit closed 3,236 sites in Jharkhand and neighbouring West Bengal states in the two years ended March 2013, according to its annual report, in part because of concerns that local residents were illegally mining coal at the sites.

That’s driving up purchases from countries like Australia, Indonesia and South Africa. Imports of coal for power stations may climb 7.4 per cent to a record 145 million tonnes this year, said Andrew Cosgrove, a Princeton, New Jersey-based analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence.

“It’s a social problem,” said Rahul Jain, a Mumbai-based analyst with CIMB Securities India. “People who take the coal out live in those areas, don’t have other jobs and think the coal is theirs. It’ll be very tough for anyone to stop the theft. Coal India says to stop it, the entire army will have to be brought in.”

Modi promised to rid the coal sector of organised crime when he visited the eastern coal town of Asansol in May.

“Isn’t coal under the control of the mafia here?” Modi asked the crowd during his speech in the eastern Indian town, where coal mining first started. “Doesn’t it need to be freed from the mafia?” In Koderma town, in neighbouring Jharkhand state, Modi said the region’s natural resources have been stolen for ages. “If your resources had been used for value addition, wealth would have rained on you.”

Coal India questioned the logistics of stealing huge amounts of coal.

“The estimates of pilferage and theft have no authentic basis,” said Alok Perti, a CIL director and former secretary at the coal ministry. “To move stolen coal on trucks, other smaller vehicles, motorcycles, bicycles and such other minor modes of transport will be logistically a very big operation if the quantities involved are in millions of tons. The estimates of theft, therefore, seem impractical.”

Poverty, unemployment, easy availability and booming demand are some of the reasons people steal coal. Millions of residents in India’s mining regions may feel left behind by the industrial advances of the nation in recent decades. Their economic conditions have remained largely unchanged, or worsened, while mines and factories pop up all around them.

“The lack of social inclusion of these groups in the policies has created space for menace like coal theft, pilferage and illegal mining,” New Delhi-based environment and energy advocacy group The Energy Research Institute said in an August 2013 report.

The anger is also showing in the growing strife over land, with villagers refusing to be dislocated, a problem Coal India cites as the biggest productivity hurdle.

“Lack of rail infrastructure, slow environment and forest clearances, land acquisition hurdles, resettlement of displaced persons and apathy of state governments have led to shortage of coal, which is making the market for stolen coal lucrative,” said CIL director Perti. “If there is no shortage, there will be no takers for the coal at higher prices.”


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