By Ratnajyoti Dutta
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's coal imports may rise by half to around 16 million tonnes in January from a year earlier, trade sources said on Wednesday, helped by a spurt in heating demand due to a severe cold wave.
India's northern region has been witnessing the coldest weather in at least 44 years, which has led to the death of over 100 homeless people, according to an aid group.
Traders currently expect January imports to be up 10-15 percent from December, estimating 14.2 million tonnes last month and 13.8 million in November. Year-ago January imports were 10.7 million tonnes.
"Imports have been on the rise since October to meet the higher energy demand during winter. The trend is expected to get a big push in the first quarter (January-March), aided by the current cold conditions," said Pranav Khurana, a freight analyst with Louis Dreyfus Commodities.
India imported 90 million tonnes of thermal and coking coal between April and November, up 26.8 percent from a year earlier.
Thermal or steam coal, the fuel mainly used by power producers, accounted for nearly 70 percent of coal shipments in the first eight months of the 2012/13 fiscal year.
The trend indicates that India could import about 100 million tonnes of thermal coal alone in this fiscal year.
India's coal ministry expects production of 574.40 million tonnes in 2012/13, up 6.4 percent from a year earlier.
The gap between India's domestic coal supply and demand will be around 192 million tonnes in the fiscal year to March 2013, according to the coal ministry.
In 2011/12, Asia's third-largest economy imported about 103 million tonnes of thermal and coking coal, a nearly 50 percent jump from a year earlier.
(Editing by Jo Winterbottom and Jane Baird)