Turning around the coal sector
ne keynote address at Elecrama 2016 came from Anil Swarup, Secretary, Union Ministry of Coal. It was a short speech—lasting just over 10 minutes—but drove home much philosophy and insight. It was indeed unusual, even paradoxical, for a bureaucrat to share a view or two on efficiency and more so, to a gathering of largely private sector entrepreneurs that are considered inherently efficient. Swarup’s inspiring contribution to the government machinery was widely acknowledged by ministers and other dignitaries that shared the dais with him that day.
Swarup addressed a gathering of electrical equipment manufacturers, trying to inspire them to face challenges put forth by the continually changing business environment. The coal secretary began with a frank admission of India failing at the crucial stage of implementation. The country, even in prehistoric days, never faced a dearth of ideas. Revolutionary ideas like the Udan Khatola found in folklore of north India actually laid the basis of an aircraft but it was left to other countries to actually devise flying machines. “The country is very good at ideas; the problem is how to make things happen on the ground,” expressed Swarup with honesty. While accepting that churning out ideas has its own significance, Swarup remarked, “I do agree that ideas play a very important role but to this gathering I would suggest—especially the way things are evolving in this country—that we have the diagnosis but the problem is in making it happen.”
Anil Swarup recalled and shared his experience of turning around the coal sector. The undercurrent of his dissertation was “implementation.” Everybody knew what the problem was and what the solutions could be. However, what Swarup and his colleagues did was to actually “do” what it took to solve the
Oproblem. When Swarup took over as Coal Secretary some 15 months ago, the coal sector was in a very bad state – production was falling, new mines were not getting approval and mined coal was not reaching power plants due to railway constraints. The situation has now reversed much to the relief of all stakeholders.
“When I took over as Coal Secretary 15 months ago, everyone was pushing me to make things happen. Then, coal happened. Now, everyone is pushing me to “unhappen” the coal! It is a very unusual situation. When I took over, I would get frantic calls from Chief Secretaries complaining of no coal inventory,” recalled Swarup.
In FY15, India had to import 212 million tonnes of coal. Despite all its adverse ecological implications, coal was still critical in meeting India’s energy needs. This year, coal production grew by an unthinkable 9 per cent. Coal imports have fallen by 16 per cent, resulting in India saving $4 billion in foreign exchange. “Coal production this year has improved to such an extent that I have become totally redundant. However, it is a good thing to happen!” remarked Swarup, attracting spontaneous laughter in the gathering.
Till about 15 months ago, the inventory level at each power plant was anywhere between 3 and 5 days. Today the average inventory is 24 days. There is not a single power plant that is critical or supercritical in terms of non-availability asserted Swarup.
Making it happen: Anil Swarup exhorted the electrical equipment industry to adapt itself to the changing environment. He articulated the situation as: “It is not necessarily survival of the fittest. How do you come up with a strategy to survive in an environment that is changing very fast?”
Coming to the finer details of how the coal turnaround was effected, Swarup said that three factors were responsible –land acquisition, faster environmental clearance and improvement in availability of railway rakes. Over the past 15 months, the coal ministry could acquire 2,500 ha of land for coal mining. For those that are antagonistic to coal, the Swarup assured that for every hectare of coal that is mined, afforestation (green belt) of 2.4 ha was created.
“It is a very simple thing that we did,” assured Swarup, adding, “Though I am bureaucrat, I believe that you convey a value proposition to the stakeholder, package it appropriately and present it to him.” Swarup made an interesting point that bureaucracy was not a monolithic structure; it had soft spots. “We had to identify the soft spots in bureaucracy,” he said, explaining that his ministry first identified key officials that could be sensitized to the issue. In a very unusual move, the coal ministry did not hold a single meeting in Delhi. All the meetings were held in respective states with Chief Secretaries, District Magistrates and Collectors. Value propositions were conveyed. He gave the example of an (unnamed) state government that was dragging its feet in handing over land for as many as six coal blocks. When the state government was told the amount of revenue that it was losing for every day of delay that it was causing, the state relented and the required land was promptly handed over. “I got that land within 24 hours,” declared Swarup with a perceptible sense of achievement.