Shaking trade

By Maureen Nandini Mitra
Published: Friday 15 August 2008

Vidyasagar Setu spurs illegal business in coal

the Hooghly River Bridge Commission (hrbc) has begun filling up deep holes at the base of the Vidyasagar Setu on the Howrah side of the bridge that coal pilferers had dug up over two decades.

The state-run commission initiated the work after it apparently learnt about the diggings allegedly by an organized network in June following a media report. hrbc officials say the holes, some of which are about 20 feet deep and at least one of which had exposed a pylon's foundation, have not affected the bridge's structure. "Each pylon is buried 30-40 feet under the ground. There is nothing to fear," said S R Banerjee, vice-chairman, hrbc.

No investigation has been ordered into the pilfering nor have any complaints been registered.

When the Rs 600-crore bridge, connecting Kolkata to Howrah city, was built in the 1980s, hundreds of tonnes of coal dust and burnt coal--waste from the Cossipore Gun and Shell Factory--was used to strengthen the base of the cable-stayed bridge's pylons. It is this mix, which also contains small pieces of unburnt coal, that pilferers had been digging up and selling to small ironworks factories and foundries in Howrah, say local sources. The coal dust is made into gul --small pellets used in chullahs --and sold in local markets and rural areas.

"The pilfering began in the early 1980s even before the construction was complete," said a trader who was invol-ved in the clandestine recycled coal trade, requesting not to be named. The digging mostly took place in a dingy area under the bridge called Doodhwala Park in Howarh's Shibpur locality and extended in a 1 km radius around the bridge.

According to the trader, the coal filling was dug up for about Rs 70 per sack, mostly by residents of the squatters' colony. Trucks would carry the bags to a gul factory in Sheikhpara. The gul sold for Rs 90 to Rs 150 a sack. The coal bits fetched about Rs 200 per sack. The pace of operations varied over the years, but during peak times at least a truckload of the filling was being lifted each day. This took place under the noses of authorities and political leaders, many of who got a cut in the deal, the trader alleged.

Both hrbc, which is in charge of maintaining the structure and security of the bridge, and the police say they were unaware of the goings on. Howrah cpi-m mla, K K Rai, however, says, "I've informed the police and hrbc about it earlier. They stopped the looting for a while but it started again." Rai brushed aside allegations of an organized racket. "The theft has been going on only for the past seven years and it is mostly poor people who are lifting the coal to use in their homes. Had they been lifting truckloads of the filling the area would been laid bare by now," he said.

Local sources said the holes were being filled up with garbage shipped in by Kolkata Municipal Corporation trucks until around 1997 when Kolkata environmentalist Subash Dutta spotted the illegal dumping and took the matter to court.

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