Modern tech in coal mining, experienced players need of the hour, say industry experts

Praduman Choubey | Apr 6, 2022 | 5 min read

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To boost supply, stakeholders in Jharkhand hit by the recent shortage urge the government to allocate blocks only to firms with expertise in scientific methods of safe and efficient mining

Dhanbad: “The future of India’s coal sector depends on raising the level of mechanisation, digitisation and automation in its operations. For this, promoting privatisation of mines and limiting coal block allotment only to expert groups are necessary. Currently, there's no provision to ensure that PSUs are held accountable for the mines they operate, and the red-tape typical of government organisations is preventing innovation,” said BN Singh, president of the Industries and Commerce Association (ICA), an umbrella group of over 150 hard coke factories operating in Jharkhand's Dhanbad, Giridih and Ramgarh districts. Here, Singh was referring to the coal crisis the energy sector and other coal-dependent industries faced a couple of months ago. He also highlighted the urgent need to raise coal production and limit consumption to a sustainable rate, till the country developed alternative sources of energy.

The ICA chief further attributed the predicament to two main factors — a shortfall in domestic coal production due to heavy rains during the monsoon and the recent hike in the price of the coal imported from Australia. These forced several coal-based industries, including hard coke, soft coke, pig iron and TMT bar production plants, to depend on domestic sources.

A view of Victory Colliery controlled by Bharat Coking Coal Limited, a subsidiary of Coal India Limited, Jharia, Dhanbad (Photo Credits- Vishal Singh)


“Even though the government allotted some coal blocks recently, it may take another one or two years for these companies to begin production due to delays in environmental clearances, as well as protests and resistance from local people backed by politicians with vested interests,” Singh told 101Reporters.

Rajiv Sharma, general secretary of the Jharkhand Industries and Trade Association (JITA), cited similar concerns. He also pointed out the worrying attitude of contractors, who he claimed were hand in glove with corrupt PSU officials and manipulated their production records.

“More than 30 private firms are mining coal on behalf of the Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL) as contractors," he added. "But a majority of them lack expertise in the field or have a track record of not adhering to mining norms. These firms are headed by local politicians or musclemen, whose main aim is to plunder the resources with utter disregard to the environment. They cause hazards by not using advanced machinery or employing manpower with technical knowhow.”

Amitesh Sahay, the owner of Dhanbad-based Maa Jagdhatri Hard Coke Industry, said: “We [hard coke factories] are the largest employers of manpower in Dhanbad after the BCCL. More than 50,000 workers are directly or indirectly employed by us. However, because of low coal availability and discriminatory policies adopted by Coal India Limited and the Central government against local industrial units, over 60 factories had to shut shop here in the past decade. It's adversely affected the livelihoods of these workers and their families.”

“Besides hard coke factories, a large number pig iron and sponge iron plants in the adjoining Giridih district are also facing crises, due to the low availability of domestic coal and the increased price of the imported coal, which had been compensating for the dip in domestic production over the past two years,” Sahay explained, suggesting solutions such as allotting coal blocks through global tenders and roping in organisations with good credentials, proven expertise and experience in using the latest technology.

A view of Dhasar Colliery operated by Bharat Coking Coal Limited, a subsidiary of Coal India Limited, Jharia, Dhanbad (Photo Credits- Vishal Singh)



The premise that proven expertise in such a delicate field be a prerequisite has logical backing, given the far-reaching effects short-sightedness in coal mining can have on the environment. So much so that Manoj Singh, a Jharia-based environmentalist and the founder of Green Life, told 101Repoters that he supported awarding mining contracts only to private operators with proven track records. He cited the example of Tata Steel operating several mines in Jharia and West Bokaro, all while adhering to environmental and safety norms and using the latest technology and machinery.

“When automation and mechanisation are the need of the hour, why can’t organisations of international repute—such Tata Steel, which can operate more efficiently with the least pollution risk—be allotted mines?” Singh asked, also demanding the inclusion of a community development clause in mining contracts. “The government’s initiative to start coal bed methane or coal mine methane production as a supplement to coal is commendable, but their potential as green energy sources is limited."

Anup Sao, a former ward councillor in Jharia's Bastacola area, said, “Unscientific mining methods that BCCL's local contractors use to increase production have put the lives of local people in danger. Many houses in the adjoining areas of the collieries have developed cracks due to the blasts carried out inside the mines.”

A retired BCCL officer, who wished to be unnamed, reiterated the ICA president's initial comments, saying that the "panacea for the problems plaguing the mining industry lies in mechanisation, automation and digitisation".

"Considering the rapid depletion of India's the coal reserves, roping in global players with expertise in modern technology in this field is key to increase the depth of mines to boost production and meet the current demand," said the officer, who once served the PSU as a technical director. "As we go deeper inside the mines, the temperature and chances of accidents increase. Only operators with access to advanced technology would be able to carry out safe mining in such circumstances.”




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