Coal India Ltd.’s Journey and the future of coal
By Anurag Sehgal
The panel discussion on the future of coal in India brought together a number of individuals who were involved with the process of public listing of Coal India Limited. The panel included, Sumit Bose, former secretary of Department of Disinvestment; Alok Perti, former secretary at the Ministry of Coal; and the former chairman of Coal India and key architect of the IPO, Partha Bhattacharyya. In addition to the panellists, there were also members from the industry, government and the academia in the audience. The objective of this panel discussion was to peer at history in order to visualise the future; identifying what were the historical challenges in increasing coal production in the country – at an operations/policy level – and what were the key steps taken to overcome those challenges? What direction have the reforms in the coal sector taken? As we usher a new era of renewables, what is the future of coal?
The discussion opened with observations on Coal India Limited IPO and wider issues of corporate governance of PSUs, historical parallels between the current situation with Infrastructure Leasing and Financial Services Limited (IL&FS) and the progress made by CIL since the IPO. The following below, were the broad takeaways:
Need for Corporate Governance reforms in PSUs
The panel discussed the need to reform the administration of PSUs to hold them to the same standards of corporate governance as private enterprises. This is needed to enable PSUs to perform their corporate functions with propriety and independence. A company such as CIL needs more de-centralised decision making for key local issues, especially contracts.
From a corporate oversight perspective (and given the CAG/CBI/CVC sword for PSUs), there is a need to change the perception that PSUs are by extension government departments. This is especially true as we see the IL&FS situation unfold. Although IL&FS is not a government entity, it still was plausibly treated as one by all and sundry. There is a need for growing realisation that PSUs are business entities and risk taking is, and ought to be, a part of their DNA – along with a strong and independent regulatory body that calls out transgressions of corporate leadership for both PSUs and private entities.
Challenges that impact future developments in RE and Coal
On the need to increase coal production in the country, however, auctions of coal blocks do not seem to have served their purpose of increasing production. Even though the process in itself has become more transparent and seemingly profitable for the government, production from auctioned mines has still not reached its breakout moment.
The next marginal innovation – long overdue? – seems to be commercial mining. The key question then is how long before commercial mining is introduced in the country? And would India be able to retain cost-effective energy pricing if coal production targets do not keep pace with demand? The alternative to insufficient production seems like imports in the short-to-medium term.
India has historically relied on targets – Planning Commission or otherwise – to achieve stated goals. As good as they may have been, reaching targets is contingent to the prevailing environment both macro and micro and the flexibility/adaptability of the institutional frameworks that enable the said targets.
The big question facing the RE target for 2022 or coal target for 2020 then, is not of right ambition but that of proper adoption/flexibility of the existing frameworks to support these targets. The question to ask would be if the current frameworks in Coal/RE are sufficient for the ambitious growth targets of power sector? Decentralisation in essence decouples sectors and provides the cushion between failing miserably and falling behind the planned targets. Are we, however, sufficiently decoupling the sectors to ensure that a shock is not transmitted across the value chain?
Brookings India hosted Partha Bhattacharyya (Former Chairman, Coal India Limited), along with a distinguished panel that discussed insights and questions based on his recent book – “When Coal Turned Gold”, as well as deliberations on the future of CIL and coal in India.
Panellists (in alphabetical order):
Partha Bhattacharyya: Former CMD, CIL
Sumit Bose: Former Finance Secretary, MoF, GoI
Atanu Chakraborty: Secretary, DIPAM, GoI
S. Mishra: CMD, ECL
Rahul Tongia: Fellow, Brookings India – Moderator
Abstract: Coal India Limited (CIL) is the largest coal producer in the world, and dominates coal production in India. The turnaround from a loss-making entity to a successful, publicly-listed company is captured in Partha Bhattacharyya’s recent book, “When coal turned gold”. This covers not just management, efficiency, financing but also handling labour pressures, state-federal issues, etc.
Partha Bhattacharyya will share his reflections not only on successful strategies for navigating these challenges but also steering CIL towards one of the most successful IPOs in the Indian corporate history.
While major successes have been achieved, and improvements continue, looking to the future, a few questions that were deliberated, included:
- The IPO took a lot of consensus if not political will – is such support there for continued if not further changes to today’s equilibrium, e.g., further divestment, rise of private players/commercial mining, etc.?
- Will CIL remain a de-facto monopoly in the coal sector?
- What structure, institutional, and regulatory changes are needed for CIL and other suppliers to meet India’s coal demand in the coming years?
- How similar/different does the future look from the past? If the problem statement has changed would incremental or BAU approaches suffice?
This event was open to the public and the media.
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[On Russia, Saudi Arabia and oil prices] This is testing out what prices everyone can live with, and it sounds like the Russians can live with prices slightly lower than what the Saudis want to live with. How durable is this Russia-Saudi agreement? They made it under some serious duress after the price drops from 2014-16, and they didn't have much choice. Do their interests align over the long term? We may begin to see the answer as they begin to chat at the G20.
[On oil prices] The question is whether they want to get crosswise with the Saudis or not. It's not friendly cooperation, especially the Saudis and the Russians. This is definitely more a marriage of convenience than love.