For a decade, one of India’s last contiguous forest landscapes has been the site of an asymmetrical battle between impoverished Adivasi villagers and a mining firm owned by the country’s richest man.
Since 2013, Adani Enterprises, founded by billionaire Gautam Adani, has been excavating coal from an open cast mine spread over 762 hectares in the Hasdeo Arand forest of north Chhattisgarh. If government clearances come through, it could soon expand the Parsa East and Kanta Basan mine, as well as open two other mines called Parsa and Kente Extension in the same area requiring another 2,037 hectares of forest to be cleared.
But local residents have put up stiff resistance to these plans. In 2021, hundreds of villagers marched 300 km to the state capital Raipur to protest against the impending government clearances for the mines. The Chhattisgarh government recently paused the clearances for the projects.
The Central environment ministry, however, has justified allowing coal mining in the biodiversity-rich region by citing public interest – the coal is needed to fire up Rajasthan’s power stations and generate cheap electricity for the state, it said.
The mines have, in fact, been specifically allotted to Rajasthan’s state electricity generation company, Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited, for this purpose. The state company, however, has controversially formed a joint venture with Adani Enterprises, called Parsa Kente Collieries Limited, and outsourced mining operations to it.
The terms of the agreement allow Adani Enterprises, which has a 74% stake in the joint venture, to sell coal “rejects” – or lower grade coal – from the Parsa East and Kanta Basan mine. Activists have long alleged that this would create a backdoor method for the Adani Group, which is also India’s largest private power generator, to use coal from the mine in its own power stations.
Now, for the first time, railway freight records obtained using the Right to Information show that millions of tonnes of “reject” coal from Parsa East and Kanta Basan have indeed been landing at three Adani-owned power plants. The coal has been sold at a rate significantly below the lowest price charged by government-owned Coal India Limited, the main coal supplier in the country, according to Adani Power’s purchase orders reviewed by Scroll.in.
This raises a question: if the cheap coal is fit enough to be burnt in Adani power stations, why not in Rajasthan government’s power plants for which it was originally intended?
In response to Scroll.in’s questions, an Adani Group spokesperson said Parsa East and Kanta Basan was Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited’s “primary mine”, which “supports its quality coal requirement”. The coal rejects were “a waste product” generated by the washing of raw coal, which was “not of desired quality for them or is inferior for their use”, the spokesperson added.
But activists say the new information raises questions about the Adani Group profiting from coal mined by depleting the Hasdeo Arand forest. “What is significant is that Rajasthan is asking for new coal blocks to be opened to fulfil its coal needs when coal from an existing block is being used to fire a private power plant,” said Alok Shukla, an activist at the forefront of the protests against mining in the Hasdeo Arand forest.
Questions sent to the Ministry of Coal about the use of coal from Parsa East and Kanta Basan in a private company’s power stations went unanswered.
Dispatch from the mine
Freight records obtained from South East Central Railway through a Right to Information request show about 15 million tonnes of coal were dispatched from Parsa East and Kanta Basan in 2021. This included both “washed coal” and “reject coal”.
Washing refers to the process through which freshly-mined raw coal is put to reduce its ash content and improve its calorific value, or the amount of energy generated per unit of coal. What is left over after this process – also called beneficiation – is called “reject coal”. Since India’s coal reserves have high ash content, the government had earlier mandated that to minimise pollution, only washed coal be used in thermal power stations that are more than 500 km away from the source mine. But this requirement was done away with in 2020.
As a result, all the coal mined from Parsa East and Kanta Basan can now be used in Rajasthan’s power stations. However, the Adani joint venture continues to separate it into “washed” coal and “reject” coal. An Adani Group spokesperson said, “The mine operations require the rejects to be lifted from the mine area, failing which they burn as also cause hindrance in mining, material movement.”
But activists point out the Adani Group benefits from the generation of “rejects” in more ways than one. It bills the Rajasthan government for the washing of coal, even though two-thirds of the raw coal from Parsa East and Kanta Basan has a gross calorific value of 4,000 kilocalories per kg-4,300 kilocalories per kg – Rajasthan’s washery agreement with Adani Enterprises states it will accept coal of 4,000 GCV.
“So why pay Adani for washing coal that is already above that threshold?” asked Sudiep Shrivastava, a lawyer from Bilaspur, a city on the fringes of the Hasdeo Arand forest, who has moved the court against forest and environment clearances granted to the mine as well as the mining agreement between Rajasthan and Adani Enterprises.
Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited did not respond to questions emailed by Scroll.in.
Railway records from 2021 show Adani-owned power stations received “reject” coal, while “washed” coal was dispatched to Rajasthan’s Chhabra, Kalisindh and Suratgarh power plants and the railway siding of its electricity board. (Railway sidings are special tracks built to handle industrial freight.) There was a considerable price difference: Rajasthan paid Rs 2,175 per tonne for the coal, while Adani Power paid Rs 450 per tonne, purchase orders show.
Around 2.6 million tonnes of coal was sent to Raipur Energen, a thermal power station bought by Adani Power in 2019. Another 0.08 million tonnes landed at the Bhupdeopur railway siding, which is used by two power stations, one of which is owned by Adani Power (Raigarh Energy Generation Limited, formerly known as Korba West). Both these plants are in Chhattisgarh.
A third Adani-owned power station, Mahan Energen Limited, also received coal from Parsa East and Kanta Basan, according to monthly records for November 2022 on the railways’ Freight Operations Information System. The Mahan plant is located in Madhya Pradesh’s coal-rich Singrauli district. Yet, Adani Power found it worthwhile to pay Rs Rs 1,228 per tonne freight charges to transport “reject” coal to the area.
Scroll.in asked the Adani Group about the quality of the coal it had sent to its power stations from the Hasdeo Arand mine. Its spokesperson said: “Power projects including ours, purchase coal rejects at a cost from various sources time to time and these details are techno-commercial and sensitive in nature and hence cannot be shared with others.”
Reject coal in power plant?
While the Adani group has declared the coal that made its way from the Parsa East and Kanta Basan mine to its power stations as “reject”, thermal experts expressed doubts about the feasibility of burning low-grade, high-ash coal in large volumes in power stations.
A case in point is Raipur Energen Limited. Freight records obtained using Right to Information show that of the 5.5 million tonnes of coal that arrived at the supercritical power station’s railway siding in 2021, 2.6 million tonnes – or nearly half the coal supply – was “reject” coal from Parsa East and Kanta Basan.
The use of such a large quantity of poor-quality coal would be a challenge for Raipur Energen, experts said, given the thermal design of its boiler. “Using coal of very high ash content for longer periods can substantially increase erosion and wear of power plant equipment, which in turn can significantly degenerate operating efficiency,” said Anish Sugathan, an energy policy expert who teaches at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad.
Experts said coal rejects can only be used in thermal power stations after they are blended with high-quality coal. The Adani Group spokesperson acknowledged this: “One is able to source coal rejects for blending provided one can organise expensive coal having higher Gross Calorific Value [GCV], to eventually match the acceptable level of specifications while firing coal in the furnace of the generation asset.”
Rejects from Parsa East and Kanta Basan have an average calorific value of 2,000 kilocalories per kg, according to Adani Power’s submission to the environment ministry. The ash content in the rejects produced from the mine in 2021 was consistently in the excess of 65%, show monthly status reports filed by the Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited.
According to the May 2022 compliance report filed by Adani Power with the Union environment ministry, the gross calorific value of the “feed coal” used in the Raipur Energen plant in the 2022 financial year ranged from 3,600 kilocalories-4,000 kilocalories per kg.
Scroll.in asked the company how it had achieved this value given that over 45% of its feed coal was made up of low-quality reject coal from Parsa East and Kanta Basan. There was no response to this question.
Assuming the average calorific value of the feed coal was 3,800 kilocalories per kg, according to Scroll.in’s calculations, independently verified by three energy experts, the plant would need to blend the reject coal from Parsa East and Kanta Basan with much superior quality coal of over 5,300 kilocalories per kg to produce the amount of electricity it produced in 2021-’22 (8.84 billion units) with the total amount of coal it claimed to have used in the period (6.17 million tonnes).
But did the coal that arrived at the plant meet this threshold? Scroll.in obtained freight records of all the coal supplies that landed at Raipur Energen’s railway siding in 2021, and traced the calorific value of the coal declared by the source mine.
Apart from Parsa East and Kanta Basan, the other major sources of coal for the plant last year were the Belpahar and Sardega mines of the Mahanadi Coalfields Limited, a subsidiary of Coal India Limited that Raipur Energen has a fuel supply agreement with since September 2020. About 32% of Raipur Energen’s coal supplies – 1.81 million tonnes – came from these mines, which, according to Mahanadi Coalfields Limited’s annual grade declaration for the year, produce coal with a calorific value between 3,100-3,400 kilocalories per kg.
Another 0.56 million tonnes – about 10% of Raipur Energen’s coal supply – arrived from the Gevra, Junadih and Kusmundah mines of South Eastern Coalfields Limited, another subsidiary of Coal India Limited. The calorific value of coal from these mines, according to South Eastern Coalfields Limited grade declarations for the year, was between 4,000 kilocalories per kg and 4,300 kilocalories per kg.
The best quality coal that arrived at the plant in 2021 had a calorific value of not greater than 4,400 kilocalories per kg. The total quantity of such coal amounted to a mere 0.5 million tonnes, less than 10% of the total supply. This came from private washeries, none of whom produce coal of calorific value exceeding 4,400 kilocalories per kg, according to their filings with the environment ministry (here, here, here and here).
A minuscule 1% or 0.05 million tonnes came from two public sidings – since the source mine is not mentioned, the quality of this coal could not be ascertained.
The weighted average of Raipur Energen’s coal blend, calculated as per thermal industry conventions, adds up to a net calorific value of less than 3,000 kilocalories per kg – far below the 3,600 kilocalories per kg-4,000 kilocalories per kg value declared by the power station.
Scroll.in asked the company how it had operated the plant with low-quality coal. There was no response to the question.
Seen another way, to produce the electricity that it did in 2021 with 5.5 million tonnes of the quality of the coal that arrived at Raipur Energen that year, experts say the plant would have had to be operating at an extremely high thermal efficiency. “An efficiency that high may be possible on paper, but is only achievable in the most optimum working conditions such as extremely good quality coal and high plant load factor,” said Shripad Dharmadhikary, analyst at the energy and environment non-profit Manthan Adhyayan Kendra.
There are more questions that arise from the company’s declarations. The Union power ministry’s records show that the total ash content in the coal Raipur Energen used in the 2021-’22 financial year was 2.04 million tonnes. If 47% of Raipur Energen’s coal supply was reject coal with average ash content 65% (an assumption on the lower side – for most months, it was higher), experts say the rest of the coal would have had to have around 17% ash content. In India, coal of such low ash content is unheard of. Raipur Energen relies entirely on domestic coal, according to its environmental filings.
The lack of clarity on how Adani Power managed to use large quantities of low-quality reject coal in a supercritical thermal power station necessitates a closer look at its operations by government authorities, activists say.
A dip in reserves
There is another reason why activists are concerned about the use of coal mined from Parsa East and Kanta Basan.
In 2011, when the Parsa East and Kanta Basan mine was cleared for mining, the amount of mineable coal was calculated to be 137 million tonnes. The mineral was to be extracted over 15 years, according to the mining plan.
However, just nine years later, in September 2020, the Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited wrote to the Union environment ministry stating that only about 20 million tonnes of coal reserves were left in the mine.
The faster-than-expected exhaustion of the mine’s coal reserves was attributed to two reasons. First, the annual production capacity had been enhanced from 10 tonnes million to 15 million tonnes from September 2018.
But more critically, the letter stated that almost 55 million tonnes of coal – 40% of the total mine capacity – could not be mined as it was “locked in working benches”, or the horizontal steps created to go deeper into the opencast mine. The original plan, the letter contended, had “missed some important safety factors” resulting in the miscalculation of the mineable reserves.
The Union coal ministry did not respond to Scroll.in’s query about whether it had independently examined Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited’s explanation about the premature depletion of coal in the mine.
To ensure steady coal supply to the Rajasthan power stations, the state company asked the government to allow it to expand the mining area. This second phase of the Parsa East and Kanta Basan project, also known as the extension project, would necessitate the felling of almost 2.5 lakh trees over an area of 1,137 hectares, and would displace the village of Ghatbarra entirely.
In 2016, the Chhattisgarh government annulled the forest rights conferred to the Adivasi residents of the village in 2013 under the Forest Rights Act in order to accommodate coal mining.
For nearly 10 months, hundreds of people have been sitting on an indefinite protest, asking for the company’s proposal to be rejected.
“Mining here will not only displace us, it will also displace our gods who reside in the forest,” said Jainandan Singh Porte, the sarpanch of the village, vowing to keep opposing the mining projects.
“We will not give up fighting,” he said. “Not at any cost.”