General Elections 2019

Illegal mining forces Raniganj residents to eat now and die tomorrow

Villages in Asansol-Raniganj coal belt, which go to polls on April 29, 2019, stand on precarious land that might collapse any day, but the government doesn’t care

By Sukanya Saha
Published: Friday 26 April 2019
An illegal opencast mine at Harabhanga Gram in the coal belt. Photo: Sukanya Saha

Raniganj, a part of the Asansol Lok Sabha constituency in West Bengal that goes to polls on April 29, 2019, is tightly caught in the clutches of illegal mining and has nobody to rescue them. Pollution, subsidence and poor resource management are pushing the area towards a dystopian future and yet no authority is bothered to help.

After Eastern Coalfields Limited (ECL), a subsidiary of Coal India Ltd (CIL), abandoned mining pits and inclines spread over 1,500 square kilometres decades ago, the area was taken over by mafias. And being remote, the coal belt was never regularly inspected or monitored by law enforcement agencies. This helped the cartels gain power over the lives of the villagers.

And now it’s happening so unabashedly that often, along the roads of Raniganj, there are processions of ragtag men seen carrying large quantities of coal on their bicycles and in small vans.

“The plunder takes place regularly under the nose of the local police and ECL authorities, who have turned a blind eye to protect the interests of the unlawful miners and there is no one else to challenge this illegal operation,” says Bishwarup Nagpal, a tailor in the village.

A study even pointed out that roof collapses, water logging, land inundation and leakage of poisonous gas have since become regular features and have killed several villagers.

“A group of us [in 2017-end] went to the ECL head office at Sanctoria to demonstrate the severity of the situation and demand that they salvage the area. The next week, the officers came to inspect it, but no action was taken,” said a shopkeeper from Shivadanga village in east Raniganj who has been living there for more than two decades.

Trapped for livelihood

Soon, the mines became the only source of livelihood for locals, while making the area unsafe to live in. The inhabitants, mostly Santhals, are aware of the potential dangers they are creating for their community by working in the mines. But, they had no option but to work there at lower-most rung.

Illegal mining and coal pilferage have left the villagers with no other source of livelihood either. They cannot depend on agriculture, sericulture or fishing. They are forced to join the illegal sector as a substitute to subsistence agriculture and a way to earn money quickly.

“We cannot depend upon agriculture. Our land is gone. So people with fewer skills are often trapped in the curious cycle of need and greed,” says Pushpak Das, a resident of the area.

Vast areas of forests and agricultural lands in the area destroyed due to underground mine fires. Photo: Sukanya Saha

A shopkeeper, while requesting anonymity, narrates one such example. “Two brothers living in our neighborhood died last year. The top layer of the ground subsided while they were working inside. Their bodies could not be found. Their families left the village a month later. No one knows where they are settled now. They had stopped talking to us once the men started working in the illegal sector,” he says. 

Ratibati, an underground mine in the coal belt, saw several small wells being dug up, each nearly 40 to 50 feet deep. “Labourers are hired on low wages, as much as for Rs 50-70 per day, to go down the mines and work. But surprisingly there are no records of how many come back as there were several reports of them dying in there,” adds Nagpal.

According to news reports, most accidents go unreported and are quickly covered up. The victim’s families are not even allowed to claim the dead bodies as that might expose the illegal operations.

Ground reality

The scale of the unplanned and unmethodical mining is such that underground water table is what’s holding the ground. Once the hydrostatic pressure is disturbed, the entire region will sink, say experts.

Moreover, the ECL’s plan did not have any mention of these illicit practices or of measures to prevent them. “The only step ECL has taken so far is plating trees near residential quarters of its important executives,” says Das.

Every year, Shivadanga witnesses monsoon wash away not just dust from tree leaves, but also buildings’ foundations, say residents while adding that after every cloudburst, the land begins to give in, houses develop cracks, farmlands sink and the wells run dry.

“The fact is that beneath the thin crust of the surface lies a labyrinth of vacant galleries. And when the feeble land crumbles, like trees, the entire 35,000-plus population will cave into the gorges,” says Nagpal.

Apart from subsidence, unscrupulous mining causes air pollution, contamination of water, noise pollution and above all changes in modes of land use due to reduction of suitable area for agriculture. These changes also expose the surrounding communities to long-term health risks.

Inaction: Law of the land

The central government is considering making retrospective changes in Mines and Minerals Development and Regulation Act (MMDRA), which will be put in front of the Cabinet soon.

According to section 21(5) of this Act, “A person without a lawful authority, if raises any mineral from any land, the state government has the right to retrieve from such person, the mineral so raised, or, whether such mineral has already been disposed of, and may also retrieve from such person, rent, royalty or tax, as the case maybe, for the period during which the land was occupied by such person without any legitimate authority.”

But there is lack of lucidity on whether the Act should deal with violations on environment norms, which are dealt by separate laws.     

The Supreme Court had, in August 2017, ruled that contravention of the environment and pollution control laws in a lease were to be considered unlawful. This flustered miners as the penalty for this amounted to 100 per cent of their output. However, the state-run private enterprises are running lucratively.

The villagers also claim to have written to the state several times warning them about the gravity of the situation, but have not seen the Government act on it.

ECL had also promised to rehabilitate the villagers near the coal belt, but they never mentioned when that promise would materialise. Few families themselves moved to Asansol and Burdwan in the past few years after survival became close to impossible in Raniganj. 

“Our records prove not a single subsidence incident has taken place after the nationalisation of coal. One can only see the occurrence of planned subsidence after the final extraction of coal. The crown of the mine is allowed to subside. But the effect of it is never felt on the surface. It’s carried out with utmost care,” said ECL Ratibati Colliery Manager adding that people often exaggerate issues.

“People presume about the illegal indentures. There is nothing like that. How can someone even dare to think that the government would ever indulge in a wrong doing? There is 100 per cent clarity in our dealings. After all, who would want to risk a government job? According to the company’s policy, breach of law is a highly punishable offence,” the manager added.  

On the other than, JK Nagar Mines’ general manager said looking after the mine is too much responsibility. “The land where surface rights belong to ECL is huge and looking after it regularly is a difficult job,” he said.  

This inaction let mafias take out coal from the land’s upper stratum and leave both Ratibati Shivadanga villages stand on precarious grounds.

With every passing day these places are becoming more and more dangerous. But, both ECL and West Bengal government have done nothing to rehabilitate the sufferers.

An authorised solution to the problem is needed to not only secure the rights of the local residents but also help conserve biodiversity.   

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