Mines and other killing devices

STATE OF ENVIRONMENT AND DEVELOPMENT IN INDIAN COALFIELDS: COALFIELDS IN WEST BENGAL·Sunit Kumar Sarkar and Subhankar Sarkar·Oxford and IBH Publishing Company Pvt Ltd 1996·Price Rs 450/-

By Bhanusingha Ghosh
Published: Saturday 15 March 1997

ranigunj is a town situated about 200 km west of Calcutta on the banks of river Damodar in one of the most industrialised areas of the country. One would expect Ranigunj to be a thriving locality, full of vitality, life and joy de vivre . Instead, it is a town which is gasping for breath. Pollution, subsidence and poor resource management has plunged not only this town but also the entire neighbouring area into a Dickensian hell.

Mining operations in the Ranigunj coalfield area began during the British Raj. Coal at that time was ferried along the river Damodar to Calcutta. Intense mining operations were extended to the Jharia area after 1907 when the grand chord line of the East India Railway was completed. However, after nationalisation of the coal industry in 1973, production steadily declined to reach an all time low of 16 metric tonnes in 1993-94. With declining production, a greater stress has been put on open cast mining.Unregulated mining for over 200 years followed by increase in open cast mining has brought in its wake a number of health problems related to extreme pollution levels of air and water and the degradation of vast tracts of agricultural land, depriving people of their traditional livelihood. In addition, the effects of blasting has made houses rather unsafe to live in.

The book delves into these and other problems of the area in depth. It touches on areas of demography, women's health, particularly with respect to the practice of using lower grade coals for domestic purposes, diseases in general, economy, educational facilities and, of course, mining practices. Overall, it is a reasonably good study of the mining industry and the quality of life of those associated with it. One aspect that the authors have skirted around is the vice-like grip that the coal mafia has over the area and the corrupt politicians, bureaucrats and businessfolk who have systematically looted the region. This is a region where the gun is the final arbitrator. This aspect should have been highlighted in the book as it has an important bearing on the socio-economic and environmental problems in the region.

Shoddily put together chapters, poor quality of printing along with numerous typographical errors makes the reading rather painful. Nevertheless, the book presents a good compilation of statistics and convincing arguments.

I come from this small town in western West Bengal. One recalls with pain the overall downslide of this region. Yet, I share with the authors the hope that the situation is perhaps not beyond redemption.

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