Before Meghalaya, Mining Tragedies in Asansol Were A Daily Affair

Aritra Bhattacharya grew up witnessing regular mining tragedies in eastern India’s coal belt in Asansol.

4 min read

The coal mine tragedy in Meghalaya, where 15 miners are feared dead, trapped in an illegal rat-hole mine for a little over a month, has come as a shock to many. There have been calls for stringent action against errant miners, dealers and government officials, so as to prevent such tragedies in the future.

Even as around 200 rescue personnel of the Indian Navy, Coal India, NDRF, Odisha fire service and private pump-maker Kriloskar are involved in rescue operations, apart from volunteers from other quarters, the Supreme Court is hearing a PIL in the matter for immediate and stringent action.

But as someone like me who was born and grew up in Asansol, a mofussil town in eastern India’s coal belt, incidents like this are routine. Sometimes so routine, that a single column mention in the newspapers is all it warrants, if at all.

‘Accident in mine, 2 dead’, ‘3 buried under debris of illegal mine’– I had seen several such reports tucked away in the inside pages of local newspapers over the last few years, when I had intermittently returned to Asansol for long periods to report, or on research assignments, or to visit family.

On the ground, illegal mining has continued, responsive if only to the pulls of demand and supply.

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Local strongmen, politicians and landowners have made fortunes in these enterprises, while hundreds of poor have lost their lives in pursuit of well-paying work amidst raging unemployment.

Two Kinds of Illegal Mines

There are two kinds of illegal coal mining in eastern India’s coal belt, stretching from Raniganj in West Bengal to Dhanbad in Jharkhand, to parts of Bihar. The first relates to collieries in which government-owned Eastern Coalfields Limited has suspended production, declaring them as closed units. Rat hole mining, of the kind practised in the mine in Meghalaya where miners are feared dead, is rampant in several such ‘shut’ coal mines around Asansol.

The other kind of illegal mines operating in the area relate to ‘virgin’ patches.

Landowners who are aware of, or discover the presence of coal reserves under their land, get together to start an open cast mine, of which there is no record in government files, documents and maps.


The Mafia and Syndicates

Stories about the local mafia, their rivalries, fights and extravagant lifestyles, are the stuff of roadside chai stall addas in Asansol. Why, the two most famous Kali pujas in my hometown are known after the names of the respective mafia lords associated with them, rather than the names of groups organising them.

Illegal coal mining is the most important source of revenue generation for mafias, and they are present in both kinds of illegal mining — in former ECL mines as well as virgin patches.

Activist friends in Asansol say no illegal mining operation can be carried out without their involvement because the coal lifted from illegal mines must be brought to government-sanctioned coal depots so that it can be sold to institutional buyers at a good price.

Mafia bosses have a well-oiled nexus with local government authorities and officials in charge of steel plants and other industries, so as to be able to bag contracts for the supply of coal to units in the area. They parcel off illegally-mined coal to such units and make a fortune.


Political Patronage

Political parties in the area, ranging from the CPM in an earlier period, to Trinamool Congress (TMC), and BJP now, maintain deep ties with the mafiosi. The latter are sources of generous donations during election campaigning. In addition, they also undertake hazardous tasks aimed at securing definite gains for their political masters, like helping in land acquisition for pet projects or engaging in rioting to vitiate the communal atmosphere.

In fact, my investigations in the aftermath of Hindu-Muslim riots in Asansol following Ram Navami in 2018 threw up the names of two prominent mafia lords who supplied arms and men that led rioting in affected neighbourhoods.

The mafiosi, on their part, maintain cordial relations across the political spectrum. In today’s political climate in the area, they are Trinamool by day, and BJP/RSS by night.


Rampant Unemployment

Almost all my friends from Asansol work in metropolitan cities across India. Those who studied in vernacular-medium government schools work in Kolkata. The reason: there are just no jobs in the coal belt. In fact, the post-1990s period has seen the shutting of several industries in the area, lading a glut of earning opportunities.

For tribals and underprivileged caste groups who live in the villages between mining centres like Raniganj and Dhanbad, illegal mines are only places they can find well-paying work.

Friends in such villages across the Damodar river that flows alongside Asansol say the wage for back-breaking work in the city is around Rs 250-300 per day. On the other hand, work in illegal mines—digging, sorting, transporting coal on bicycles and motorcycles—fetches them around Rs 500 per day.


Why are the Lives of the Poor So Cheap?

Although most of them are aware of accidents and other hazards at illegal mining sites, they take up the work hoping nothing untoward will happen to them because they need the money so desperately just to get by.

Every once in a while though, tragedies like the one in Meghalaya do unfold. “Just two months ago, two people from our area lost their lives in a landslide in an illegal mine,” a friend from a village across the Damodar river told me. “The contractor paid their families Rs 2 lakh each so they wouldn’t report the matter…Why are the lives of poor so cheap,” he asked.

(The writer is an independent journalist and researcher, and currently teaches at a college in Bengaluru. He can be reached at @b_aritra on Twitter and Instagram. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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