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September 20, 2017

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Coal reserves offer no relief for India fuel crunch

MUMBAI--India sits on one of the world's biggest coal reserves, yet its power stations are starved of the fuel with some idle and others running dangerously low on supplies.

Coal accounts for nearly 60 percent of India's electricity, and the country's biggest utility company warned the government this month that supplies at many plants were severely depleted.

While the government has rushed to avert an immediate crisis, analysts say much longer-term solutions are needed to spur recovery of the sluggish economy, which is hugely dependent on coal imports despite large domestic reserves.

"India needs more power — a lot more, and fast," said HSBC economist Frederic Neumann.

"Otherwise its recovery and hopes of a Modi-boom will be scuppered," said Neumann, referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who came to power in May on a platform of reviving Asia's third-largest economy.

The crippled state of India's power supply was on full display in the capital New Delhi during its hottest months in May and June when long power outages led to street protests and uproar in parliament.

Last week, the government admitted 46 of 100 major coal-fired plants had stocks for less than a week after the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) warned it could face emergencies at many plants.

As India enters its rainy season, "it will become more difficult to replenish the coal stock," NTPC chief Arup Roy Choudhury wrote to the power ministry in a letter obtained by AFP.

"In the case of even small disruption, the total power generation at these stations will be adversely affected," Choudhury said.

The situation seems unnecessary given India's 302 billion tonnes of coal resources, which represent the world's fifth-largest reserves.

But coal imports hit a massive 165 million tonnes in the financial year to March 2014, climbing from 146 million tonnes in the previous year, draining foreign exchange reserves.

The reason for the imports is the snail-pace development of India's own coal sector — underscored by the fact the first new major coal mine in more than five years began production just last week.

Drag on Economic Growth

India's lack of power is a drag on economic growth with the peak hour deficit — the gap between supply and demand — about 12 percent.

Holding up new mines is a maze of environmental clearances and complex land acquisition approval, often primitive mining methods and lack of transportation facilities. Recently built ones stand idle for lack of fuel.

On top of that have been corruption scandals which have crippled the industry.

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