The use of waterway for such large-scale commercial transport is unprecedented in India and ends NTPC's traditional dependence on railways for movement of imported coal for the project.
Some 19 barges will be used to ship coal through the water route. The power major imports about 3 million tonnes ( mt) of coal every year to meet domestic fuel shortfall at the 2,600 MW Farakka plant.
The first consignment of 1,700 tonnes of imported coal has moved from the Sandheads port for the Farakka plant through the national waterways 1 ( Haldia-Allahabad route) today, a senior NTPC official said.
It would however be not easy for private-sector power firms to replicate this model for transporting imported coal to their power stations. This is because in the absence of assured use of the facility for a fixed period, the shipping lines might shy away from building the necessary loading and unloading infrastructure.
India's coal imports had risen to 135 million tonnes in 2012-13 and this year's imports are estimated to be 180 million tonnes. Whether use of waterways would be cost-effective would depend on various factors like the volumes and distance involved.
NTPC has been facing long delays in transporting imported coal to the plant due to uncertain availability of rakes from the railways and port congestion. With access to the inland shipping facility, NTPC should be able to bring some sort of certainty in transhipment of coal to the plant site and possibly also save on costs, though the company remains tight-lipped on quantum of potential savings.
The Farakka port is 660 km away from the Sandheads port. According to NTPC sources, it will take three days to ship coal from the port to project site via the waterways.
The power PSU also plans to use the same waterway for shipping imported coal to Barh power plant in Bihar. NTPC plans to import 5 mt of coal annually for the Barh plant from the next year.
The project has been implemented under a tripartite agreement signed by NTPC, Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) and Jindal ITF, the infrastructure arm of Jindal Saw. Being the project operator, Jindal ITF has made the entire investment for developing loading and unloading facilities and purchase of barges for transporting coal on behalf of NTPC.
It will be paid for its services by the power PSU. IWAI, for its part, is required to ensure least available depth (LAD) of 2.5 meter for minimum 330 days in a year and provide navigational support for smooth movement of barges, for which it will get wharfage charges from the operator.