Powerless in Punjab: Amid Centre vs state blame game, power plants in Punjab run out of coal

With three of its five thermal power plants already shut due to exhausted coal stocks, and the remaining two having coal supplies only till this weekend, Punjab is headed towards darkness as goods train movement remains suspended.

Vivek Gupta
| Updated: Last updated on November 6th, 2020,

Protestors sitting at a railway line leading to power thermal plant in Rajpura, Patiala, Punjab, on November 4: Photo: By arrangement


A power surplus Punjab has turned into a power deficit state as the prolonged suspension of good trains in the state due to the rail-roko agitation by farmers since October 1 against the central government’s three contentious agri laws, has dried up the coal stocks at its thermal power plants. 

Of the total five power plants in the state, three are already shut and two have coal supplies left for another two to three days. Massive power shortage has led to the Punjab State Power Corporation Limited (PSPCL) spending Rs 5 crore per day extra to buy power from the central power exchange. The PSPCL is levying power cuts of two to five hours during the day in the state, which is expected to take a toll on industrial production, and also on the soon-to-begin wheat sowing season. Industries in Punjab have already announced a loss of Rs 5,000 crore, which is expected to mount further.

“Three of the five thermal plants having a daily power generation capacity of 3,920 megawatt, on which state’s power supply mainly rests, are fully shut down due to nil coal stock,” A Venu Prasad, chairperson, PSPCL confirmed to Gaon Connection. “Two other thermal plants of 1,760 megawatt capacity are barely left with coal for two to three days and are on the verge of temporary closure,” he added.

According to him, the repercussions of coal shortage and shutdown of power plants will be severe. The PSPCL is already paying Rs 5 crore per day extra, in order to buy power from the central power exchange. On November 3, it bought 160 lakh units (800 megawatt) power at Rs 3.60 per unit, whereas the state power plants were supplying the power agency power below Rs 2.90 per unit.

“We have also bought 2,000 megawatt for the next one week at different rates but mostly above three rupees per unit, thereby causing huge fiscal loss to the institution,” Prasad informed Gaon Connection, and hoped the situation would improve soon. 

As per the data from the fuel management division of the Central Electricity Board, the coal requirement of the state’s five thermal plants is 54,000 tonnes per day (see table: Per day coal requirement of thermal power plants in Punjab). The plants maintain at least a month’s stock in advance, but these stocks are almost over since goods trains are not operating in the state for the last 35 days now, as some farmers’ groups have blocked rail tracks. Passenger trains are also suspended in the state.

Table: Per day coal requirement of thermal power plants in Punjab

Source: Fuel Management division of Central Electricity Board

Gaon Connection has obtained figures from the Punjab state load dispatch centre, which shows that the power demand in the state on November 3, during the day time was 5,200 megawatt (MW) and 3,600 MW at night. But the same day the gross power generation of the state was a mere 688 MW against the state’s gross power generation capacity of 7,500 megawatt per day, of which 5,680 megawatt is contributed by five thermal plants and the remaining power comes from hydro, solar and other alternative sources.

As per the state’s load dispatch centre data, the share of two functional thermal plants in November 3’s generation was mere 218 MW, while the remaining 470 MW came from hydro and solar energy projects. This 218 MW is also expected to stop by this weekend, as these two thermal power plants are likely to run out of coal.

The 1,980 megawatt Talwandi Sabo Power Ltd in Mansa district of Punjab, run by the Vedanta Group, was the first to shut its operation about a week ago. It was followed by the 1,400 megawatt Rajpura Thermal Plant in Patiala, run by Larsen & Toubro group, that closed operations four days ago on October 31. Private utility GVK Power that runs the 540 megawatt Goindwal Sahib Power Project in Taran Taran district announced closure of operations at 3 pm on November 3. Meanwhile, the two state-owned utilities — 920 megawatt Guru Hargobind Thermal Plant at Lehra Mohabbat and 840 megawatt Guru Gobind Singh Super Thermal Power Plant at Ropar — have enough coal left for just two-three days and are on the verge of closure, officials said.

A thermal power plant in Punjab. Photo: Happy.com/flickr

The state’s thermal plants need to be immediately refuelled with coal before the situation gets any worse, said Prasad. He also warned that the power cuts may increase if the situation remains the same. The racks of coal are ready to be dispatched from Jharkhand and other coal supply areas, but they are unable to reach Punjab. 

Incidentally, as winter sets in, overall power consumption is usually only one-third of its peak summer demand in Punjab. But under the present unprecedented circumstances, even this seems an unachievable target, said a PSPCL official monitoring the power distribution segment.

Widespread financial repercussions

The acute shortage of power supply in the state is expected to have wider repercussions, Vinod Gupta, former chief engineer of PSPCL and currently spokesperson of All India Power Engineers Federation, told Gaon Connection. Under the banking system, PSPCL lends the saved power supply in the state during the winter months to Himachal Pradesh, which it takes back during the peak summer season when there is higher demand in Punjab so as to maintain supply for 24 hours, he said.  

For instance, between October 2019 and March 2020, PSPCL loaned 1,500 MW to Himachal Pradesh. But is unable to do so now due to the prevailing power shortage in the state. Instead, Punjab is being forced to buy power from the central pool on cash payment. 

“Its impact will be seen next year during the peak summer season, when PSPCL will have to buy additional power from the central pool, putting the institution under more financial distress. PSPCL is already facing a cash shortage and this will hamper its ability to buy enough power in the coming days,” warned Gupta. 

Regular consumers are also going to be affected. Since PSPCL does not have financial capability at the moment to absorb the current losses, it will pass on the expenditure to consumers by revising its power tariff in the next financial year. Overall, everyone will suffer if the problem does not improve in the near future, he reiterated.

Impact on industries and farming

“The suspension of goods trains to Punjab has already impacted Punjab’s core industries such as textile, sports goods, and steel manufacturers as raw materials have not been able to reach them,” Rahul Ahuja, Punjab chairman of Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) told Gaon Connection. Industries have suffered a direct loss of two thousand crore rupees because of this and now the power cuts will further mount our losses and create uncertainty, he said. Some news reports claim losses have mounted to Rs 5,000 crore.

Prices of raw materials have escalated and export containers are held up in ports and waiting for the goods trains to begin, said Ahuja. “Sending finished products via trucks becomes more expensive and erodes the profit margin of the entire twenty thousand crore textile and hosiery industry of Punjab’s Ludhiana area as well as the sport goods industry of Jalandhar,” he rued.

Gobindgarh that is the hub of iron road manufacturing too is facing raw material shortage. “The overall scenario is grim for the industry but sadly, both state as well as centre are playing politics over it,” Ahuja said.

Apart from industries, the present impasse is also expected to affect wheat sowing in the state. The suspension of freight trains has not only hit the coal supplies for thermal power plants, but also adversely affected supply of fertilisers for the rabi (winter) crops and movement of foodgrains stocks. PSPCL supplies four hours of power to the agriculture feeder during the wheat sowing season, which is about to begin. But at present there is no power supply, Gupta said.

Members of Bhartiya Kisan Union-Ekta Ugrahan sits permanently over the railway track leading to state’s biggest thermal plant of 1,980 MW at Talwandi Sabo in Mansa district. Photo: By arrangement

Farmers’ allege arm twisting by the Centre

“While it suited the state government to let the farmers hamper rail movement to put pressure on the Centre to revoke the farm acts, now, even after the tracks have been cleared of the agitators, the Centre has taken an adamant stand and won’t allow freight services to resume unless all tracks are cleared,” said Ahuja adding how the entire state was being held to ransom because a handful of farm organisations had caused the rail-roko

“The lockdown and COVID had already hit us hard. The present situation was least expected,” he added.   

It was on October 1 that the farmers’ organisations launched rail-roko in the state to protest against the new agri laws. But, a day after the Punjab assembly passed its own farm bills, on October 21, thirty odd farmers’ organisations decided to shift their demonstrations from railway tracks. But Northern Railways did not start the freight service right away. The goods trains could not be resumed since many tracks were still occupied by farmers unions, said Deepak Kumar, chief public relations officer of Northern Railways.  

On October 26, Union railway minister Piyush Goyal also issued a statement seeking the Punjab government’s assurance of the safety of trains and their crew members before restoring freight services, hours after Chief Minister Amarinder Singh asked him to intervene in resuming the same.

“The Centre’s refusal to ply goods trains is nothing but arm twisting and conspiracy to derail farmers’ opposition to the agri laws, that has now assumed national and international significance,” Sukhdev Kokri , general secretary of Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan), told Gaon Connection. This union of the farmers is on the forefront of the farmers’ protest in Punjab. 

“I want to clearly tell the Centre that all the main lines of the railway tracks in Punjab are clear except in a ten kilometres radius of Amritsar zone where protesters are sitting on the tracks under the banner of the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee,” he clarified. “Our organisation continues to squat on two rail tracks but these are private coal supply lines of two private thermal plants at Rajpura and Talwandi Sabo, which in no way hamper the movement of good trains,” he pointed out.

“We still believe that the state will easily manage the power situation if its own thermal plants are run into 100 per cent capacity,” Kokri declared.

Jagmohan Singh, general secretary of BKU-Dhakaunda and spokesperson of 30 other farm organisations told Gaon Connection that they were holding a joint meeting of different farm organisations in Chandigarh to prepare a future course of strategy but they were so far not inclined to stop rail movement.

“I fail to understand what stops the centre to start goods trains. It is a conspiracy to pressurise the state to end farms protest in Punjab, and we will never let that happen,” he said.

Chief Minister of Punjab and his MLA protest in Delhi at Jantar Mantar to bring state’s grim situation to the Centre’s notice. Photo: Punjab Department of Public Relations.

Power struggle reaches Delhi

Meanwhile, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh and his MLAs have already arrived in Delhi today, November 4, to hold a symbolic ‘relay dharna’ to bring Punjab’s grim situation to the Centre’s notice. 

In his statement, the chief minister said that as President Ram Nath Kovind had not given time for a meeting regarding the state’s farm bills, he is forced to hold a protest in Delhi to highlight the power crisis and critical essential supplies situation amid continued suspension of goods trains by the railways. “He [President] is the head of the nation and we wanted to tell him about the situation in Punjab and hoped that he would talk to the Central government,” said the state chief minister, who described the situation on the ground as grim as the state had run out of coal. He said the people of Punjab were staring at a “dark” festival season.

Meanwhile, several Punjab MLAs were stopped by Delhi police at the Haryana-Delhi border as they headed towards Delhi to attend the Amarinder Singh led protest.

The state chief minister said that the Centre’s step-motherly attitude towards Punjab was wrong. He alleged the state had not been paid its GST dues since March and its constitutional guarantee of Rs 10 crore was pending too, adding that the Disaster Relief Fund had also been stopped by the Centre. “We don’t have money, our coal stocks are over. How can we survive in this situation?” he questioned.