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Punjab hit by power cuts as coal trains halted amid protests

CHENNAI (Reuters) - Millions of people in Punjab state were left without power for up to five hours on Tuesday, a state official said, due to a coal shortage after trains were suspended following a blockade by farmers.

“There were power cuts of between two to five hours in different parts of Punjab today, and this situation could last for two to three days,” A Venu Prasad, chairman of the Punjab State Power Corp Ltd, told Reuters by telephone.

Farmers in Punjab have been blocking railway lines in protest at new farm laws passed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.

Three of the five power stations that supply power to Punjab were left with no coal, Prasad said, adding that the state’s chief minister would hold a meeting to review the situation on Wednesday.

A spokesman for state-run Indian Railways was not available for comment outside of regular working hours.

“Punjab runs out of power as coal stocks dry up completely due to goods trains’ suspension. Consumers brace for massive power cuts,” the state government of Punjab said in a tweet on Tuesday.

Farmers across India, but particularly in Punjab, have staged protests against the new farm laws. The government says the legislation will unshackle farmers from having to sell their produce only at regulated wholesale markets and make contract farming easier, but protesting farmers say it will leave small farmers with little bargaining power and that wholesale markets, which provide farmers with regular income, would lose relevance.

Prasad said the state bought power from power exchanges on Tuesday, at a high price, to meet some of the demand.

“We bought coal from exchanges at 3.60 rupees ($0.0483) per unit today. We produce power at an average of 2.90 rupees,” he said.

Reporting by Sudarshan Varadhan; Editing by Susan Fenton