A reluctant coalman

Written by Indronil Roychowdhury | Updated: Aug 30 2013, 09:25am hrs
The CMD of Coal India tells Indronil Roychowdhury about the pressures he faces from power producers, unions and investors. And as the lone coal miner in the country, theres just that much pressure that can be piled on

Its a muggy Monday afternoon in Kolkata with the rains taking a break. But the 15-minute drive from the business district in Dalhousie Square, where Coal India Limited (CIL) is headquartered, past the Maidan is wonderful and the Victoria Memorial is always beautiful to look at. And its pleasant inside the Taj Bengal located in the upmarket and green Alipore, with the 177-year-old National Library and the 138-year-old Zoological Gardens, both the legacy of the British Raj, in the vicinity.

I am with Narsing Rao, the chairman and managing director of CIL, at the Sonargaon restaurant, now in its 24th year, but with its reputation intact despite at least half a dozen new restaurants catering to Indian cuisine having sprung up in the city over the last two years.

Sonargaons traditional dcor (mud walls with diyas placed on in-built shelves) hasnt been disturbed in all these years and the waiters are attired in ethnic wearwhite dhotis and embroidered long, black kurtas. The lighting is unobtrusivenot surprising in a city known for its aesthetics. We have the restaurant almost all to ourselves, even though its well past 1.30 pm, and find a comfortable sofa in a corner.

The tomato shorba sounds like a good way to start and in between spoonfuls of the hot soup, Rao talks of how he was initially reluctant to get away from Hyderabad and move to Kolkata since he had just six years of service remaining. Eventually, he gave in to the temptation of heading the public sector behemoth and is getting used to the drillthe worst part of which is the continuous travelling, most of it to Delhias is his wife. Raos son, meanwhile, is wrapping up an engineering course at BITS Pilani.

Interestingly, Rao worked with the Indian Forest Service and the Indian Police Service before joining the Indian Administrative Service. In between, he spent six years on UN assignments in Myanmar, Indonesia, Maldives, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Rome, time which he says was very well spent.

His stints in his home state of Andhra Pradesh, of course, brought him insights into the Naxalite movementhe also learnt a lot about this while in Nepal. Rao says he managed to get a lot of work done with the junta government of Myanmar encouraging them to implement poverty alleviation and community development schemes.

Coal India is a different world in many ways because much of my career has been spent on work relating to poverty alleviation, community and tribal development and I sometimes feel I was destined to work for the weaker sections. In fact, when the Andhra Pradesh government posted me to Singareni I was hesitant to go because coal was totally Greek and Latin to me. All I knew was that there were big strikes in Singareni and serious accidents, Rao tells me. In the end, it worked out well though.

By now, weve polished off a few papads between us, not the least concerned that we may not have enough of an appetite left for the main course. And we easily put away the ajwaini machli tikka. Rao says hes attempting to make life easier for workers at CIL, much like he did in Singareni, though the task is not easy.

Since the fish was so good we decide to ask for some bhekti tawa masala for the main course but stay away from any rice choosing light tawa phulkas instead. They go well with the arhar dal tadka and the makai palak. Already holding an MSc in chemistry from the Osmania University, Rao added a Masters degree in economics after he joined the civil services. But hes hardly bookish, preferring the outdoors; luckily for him, his stints overseas allowed him to explore several new and varied geographieshe loved the tough terrain in Nepal as much as the interiors of Myanmar where he travelled under the vigil of the junta. And Bangladesh, too, was a pleasant discovery, with its beautiful countryside. My decision to go to Myanmar for a UN assignment rather than being in New York and Rome was guided by George Orwells book, Burmese Days, recalls Rao.

The job on hand, though, is not as exciting; everyones cribbing about the shortage of coal and the cost of importing it. While CIL is hoping to produce more each year, its a slow process.

Meanwhile, managing the expectations of shareholders isnt easy either. Rao says profitability could stay relatively low for some time until CILs productivity improves. He believes theres scope for hiking prices for users in the non-power sector, pointing out that there is no logic in supplying coal to purely commercial entities at a price thats substantially lower than that in the market. There is a justification for increasing the price and taking it close to the international prices, if not altogether there. Even ethically commercial entities should not get coal at discounted price, the CIL chief says, arguing that the price should be market-driven so as to create a level-playing field. The private sector has started producing coalfrom captive blocks. But, he points out, it will take a while before production levels become meaningful. Its past 3 pm now, so we dont have time for coffeewe didnt have appetite for dessertand although I would have liked to delve into a few more issues, Rao needs to get back. Its raining once again as I head back to office.