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NEW DELHI, June 12 (Reuters) - India's thermal coal imports in April jumped by nearly half over a year ago, provisional data from government sources showed, as growing demand and cheap prices fuelled buying by the world's fourth-biggest importer.
The surge in the shipments, which came on the heels of a 75 percent climb in India's fiscal year thermal coal imports, will help the country cope better with slowing growth in domestic production of the energy resource.
It could also reassure top supplier Indonesia of alternate demand sources for at least some of its low-grade thermal coal should China ban such imports from the Southeast Asian nation.
India's thermal coal imports soared 48 percent in April to 9.95 million tonnes, the data showed. India does not release coal import data on a regular basis. It places no restrictions on the imports of the commodity, which are brought into the country by traders and consumers.
More than half of India's power generation is fuelled by thermal coal, but domestic supplies still struggle to keep pace with capacity growth in the power sector, leading to power cuts that crimp growth in Asia's third-largest economy.
Buyers have also been drawn to imports by weak global coal prices. Prices for Australian coal, the benchmark for Asia, have fallen about 30 percent since a record high of $130 per tonne in 2011 and are down 8 percent since the beginning of this year.
Coal prices in Indonesia, India's biggest thermal coal supplier, typically track Australian prices.
While cheaper prices help, demand is the key driver for many buyers.
State-run power producer NTPC Ltd plans to nearly double its thermal coal imports to 17 million tonnes this fiscal year due to strong demand, said spokeswoman Deepna Mehta.
"We welcome falling prices but that would not change the import strategy of the company," she said.
Power generation in India rose 9.3 percent in April from a year ago to just under 59,000 megawatts.
India itself is the world's third-largest coal producer after China and the United States and state-run Coal India is the world's biggest miner, but domestic output is beset with problems securing clearances for mines and supply bottlenecks.
India's own thermal coal production rose 3.3 percent in 2012/13 and was up just 0.76 percent in April to 39.2 million tonnes, provisional figures from a government source showed.
Imports this year to March 31, 2014 could hit 165 million tonnes to meet the local supply shortfall, another record after total imports touched 135 million tonnes in 2012/13.
Coking coal imports fell 14 percent in April to 2.20 million tonnes as demand for the steelmaking ingredient slipped, the data obtained by Reuters showed.
Imports of coking coal are expected to rise in 2013/14 overall, however, as additional steelmaking capacity boosts demand in the world's fourth-largest steelmaker.
The fall in coking coal imports meant overall coal shipments were up 26.2 percent to 12.53 million tonnes, the data showed.
Lower prices meant the cost of April's total import volumes fell about 3 billion rupees from a year ago to 64.8 billion rupees ($1.12 billion).
Indonesia maintained its top slot as the No. 1 coal exporter into India, accounting for 60.7 percent of the total shipments in April, followed by Australia and South Africa at 15.7 percent and 14 percent, respectively. ($1 = 57.9100 Indian rupees) (Additional reporting by Krishna Das; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman)