Poverty forces ‘rat-hole’ miners into death traps

Meghalaya coal mining

The recent mining mishap in Meghalaya has brought the focus back on the illegal mining which is rampant in the northeastern state. For G K Srivastav, a senior trade union leader at Raniganj in West Bengal’s West Bardhaman district, this incident brings memories of many such collapses that have happened in the region and the resultant deaths that mostly went unnoticed. Poor people, who have no other job opportunity, crawl in these narrow pits to dig out coal, for a low wage, despite the knowledge of the imminent danger.

Srivastav is also concerned about the helpless situation of the family members of the miners who lost their lives in the thousands of illegal coal mines in the Raniganj area. The Raniganj Coalfield is spread across the districts of West Bardhaman, Birbhum, Bankura and Purulia. “If you ask these people whether their family members have died while working in the illegal coal mines, they will just say ‘no’ and will not utter another word,” Srivastav told DH. He is the joint general secretary of the All India Coal Workers Federation affiliated to the Centre of Indian Trade Unions.

 



Manipulation from the coal mafia and lure of money make these people, mostly living in abject poverty, suffer in silence. Taking advantage of their situation, the henchmen of the coal mafia offer them a one-time compensation of about Rs 1.5 lakh and convince them that going to police or to court will be a futile attempt.

“If the family members persist, the henchmen of the mafia silence them with the threat of murder,” says Srivastav. Srivastav and other activists in the coal belt believe that if relatives of the victims start talking about the high human cost of illegal coal mining, it will not take long for the business to shut down permanently.

Organised crime

Considering the organised nature of the crime and the socio-economic scenario of these districts, this development seems highly unlikely. According to locals, the lack of other sources of employment, including agriculture, leaves people with no choice but to risk their lives by working in illegal coal mines which function without any safety measures.  

The estimations provided by the activists indicate the gravity of the situation. In about 3,500 illegal coal mines in Raniganj area, at least 25,000 people are directly employed, while 30,000 get indirect employment. These workers belong to remote and backward villages of Bankura, West Bardhaman, Birbhum districts and the neighbouring Jharkhand.

Though activists are vocal about rampant illegal mining and its dire consequences, there is no official data available on this.

Trade union leaders and locals allege that several officials of the state administration including the police and elected representatives are in collusion with the coal mafia and have a stake in the business.

“Who will you approach? Police will not listen to you and neither will the elected public representatives,” says Srivastav. Activists claim that in most cases, police either refuse to lodge a complaint or deny any casualties when such illegal mines collapse.

However, senior police officials of West Bardhaman and Bankura deny these allegations. “Local police, Central Industrial Security Force and Eastern Coalfields (ECL) are active in curbing illegal coal mining,” Laxmi Narayan Meena, Commissioner of the Asansol-Durgapur Police Commissionarate, who is in-charge of Raniganj, told DH.

Koteswara Rao N, the Superintendent of Police of Bankura district, said, “Nothing of that sort happens.”

“These are all baseless and politically motivated allegations. Our party is not by any means involved in illegal mining,” West Bengal’s Food and Supplies Minister Jyotipriyo Mallick told DH

Speaking on conditions of anonymity, a senior ECL official said, “If any kind of illegal mining takes place at the coal mines under the leasehold area, we lodge FIRs and ensure that the illegally extracted coal is seized.”

“Don’t even think of taking photos when the miners are around. If we get caught we will not live to tell the story,” said a local resident who accompanied this correspondent to the illegal mines in Upardanga. From a distance, we could see people loading heaps of coal into the trucks.

About 9 km away from Raniganj, Kalikapur village of Bankura district looks like any other small village of rural Bengal. But in January 2017, this village witnessed a major accident when an illegal coal mine collapsed killing at least four people while several others went missing. Even as the district police maintain that there was no casualty in the incident, locals say at least 60 persons were inside the mine when it collapsed.

Losing life to illegal coal mining is not new to this district where, according to sources, there are at least 800 illegal coal mines. According to public interest litigation filed by Bibek Homchowdhury, the general secretary of the Colliery Mazdoor Sabha of India, at the Calcutta High Court in 2014, at least five persons died on December 15, 2013 when an illegal coal mine collapsed in Kalikapur village. Citing media reports, the petition states, “It appears from the said news item that five persons are feared dead while mining illegally at Kalikapur under Mejia block... and that there were previous incidents of mining deaths which are not reported although police are aware of at least 40 illegal coal mines in the area.”

A high court bench directed the district magistrate and Superintendent of Police of Bankura to probe the incident. The High Court order stated, “It is needless to say if incidents of such nature happen on account of illegal mining, it would not only result in the theft of wealth of nation by unwanted elements in the society but play havoc with the lives of innocent workers who are mostly villagers from neighbouring areas.” 



Different ways, all illegal! 

1. Mines where the coal mafia digs up a fresh mine. According to experts, the coal seam always exists with a slant, known as gradient, below the surface. The steeper the slant of the coal seam the more difficult it is to extract coal.

Once they zero in on a spot they start digging near the outcrop (the area where the coal seam is near the surface). They follow open pit method: first, a pothole is dug on the surface and then another channel is dug to reach the coal seam.

2. Illegal coal mines built on abandoned legal mines which are often earlier owned by the Eastern Coalfields. The mafia here targets the left-over coal. In such cases, the pit and the gallery already exist. A rope is hung from a winch and a large bucket is tied to the rope’s end. Then a worker gets into the bucket and is put down the coal mine. He is pulled back up after the extracting the coal.

3. The coal mafia also employs the open cast pit method. In such cases, there is a stair-like structure on the sides of the pit called benches and the walls of the pit are called high walls. In a bid to extract coal, the coal mafia digs a tunnel into the high wall and then the coal is carried to the surface manually by workers.

Dark recesses

To ensure that the gallery of the mine is stable and does not collapse, the height of the gallery must be maintained properly. For example, if the depth of the pit is 500 feet, then the height of the gallery must not exceed three metres. In legal mines, the roofs are always supported by timber props. There is also another support method wherein a ladder-like structure made of timber is used as support to the roof. There is no such support mechanism in illegal coal mines which means the roof collapses once the coal underneath is removed. Unlike legal mines, there is no supervision of coal extraction and inspection of safety measures in illegal coal mines.

Total number of illegal coal mines in West Bengal - 3500

People employed 75,000

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Poverty forces ‘rat-hole’ miners into death traps

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