By Soudhriti Bhabani
Kolkata, Dec 3 (IANS) With the federal investigation agencies carrying out marathon raids to nab nefarious elements, the spotlight turned on the illegal coal mining empire in West Bengals infamous Raniganj-Asansol belt that remained a hotbed of illegitimate operations of coal for over four decades.
Only a few names like Anup Majhi, alias Lala, and Joydeb Mondal have resurfaced on list of central agencies but sources said that there are many such big mafias involved in the illegal racket of pilferage and mining of ‘black diamond’ in the region. They virtually operate a parallel administration in the colliery belt in connivance with top politicians, local administration and the Eastern Coalfields Ltd (ECL) authorities.
“We are investigating the matter. We can’t say anything more,” Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) spokesperson told IANS from Delhi. Asked if the agency has got hold of Lala and Joydeb Mondal, the official said: “No arrest has been made so far, officially.”
The CBI had conducted raids at as many as 45 locations across various districts of West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and neighbouring Jharkhand last week (on November 28). The CBI’s anti-corruption branch, divided in 22 different teams, had carried out the raids in connection with a coal-smuggling racket in Raniganj-Asansol belt.
According to police sources, the entire syndicate of illegal coal handling takes place in an organised manner. The three-layered mechanism of operating the illegal coal mining in the ECL leasehold area is divided into three different parts-first, illegal rat-hole mining that mostly takes place in abandoned ECL collieries, operating depots to stockpile the illegal coal and the last and final part is transportation of those illegally-mined minerals.
All big players are involved in the third part as the key profits lie there only. Insiders say that in about 3,500 illegal coal mines in the Asansol-Raniganj area, at least 35,000 people are directly employed while another 40,000 get indirect employment. The work force is mostly brought from neighbouring impoverished pockets of Jharkhand. Only 5 percent of the total manpower associated with the organised illegal mining syndicate is local.
“The expanse of illegal coal mining starts from Salanpur and covers areas like Gourandi, Asansol north and south, JK Nagar, Barabani, Jamuria, Pandabeswar, Kunushtaria, Raniganj, Ukhra, Ballalpur till Mejia in Bankura border. The organised crime syndicate of illegal coal mining started during the early 80s after ECL was nationalised in 1973,” local sources said, who did not wish to be named fearing backlash from the coal mafia syndicate.
Miners who work in hundreds of these high-risk narrow pits to dig out coal for a living work directly under these mafias. They risk their lives, against meagre payments, to keep the business running. Illegal coal mining, which has a daily turnover running into crores is considered to be the parallel economy in the industrial town belt of Asansol-Raniganj and its surrounding areas. Besides digging up plots, those engaged in illegal mining extract coal from mines abandoned by ECL.
Raniganj Coalfield, which falls under ECL, is the birthplace of coal mining in the Country. Raniganj Coalfield remained the principal producer of coal in India in the 19th Century and considerable period of the 20th Century. In 1973, all non-coking coal mines were nationalized and brought under Eastern Division of Coal Mines Authority Limited. In 1975 Eastern Coalfields Limited (ECL), a Subsidiary of Coal India Limited (CIL) was formed and inherited all the private sector coal mines of Raniganj Coalfields.
ECL mining leasehold area is 753.75 Sq-km and surface right area is 237.18 sq-km. It is situated in two States-West Bengal and Jharkhand. Raniganj Coalfield is spreading over Burdwan, Birbhum, Bankura and Purulia districts in West Bengal.
To remember, in 1774 first mining operation in India was started in this Coalfield by Sumner & Heatly. In 1820, first Coal Company M/s. Alexander & Company was established. In 1835, first Indian Enterprise M/s. Carr & Tagore Company was formed. In 1843, the first joint stock coal Company i.e. M/s. Bengal Coal Company was formed. Since then, underground coal mining operations had been continuing in Raniganj Coalfields by numerous small owners.
“The open surface mining or cave mining takes place in ECL areas which is controlled by local mafia involving poor labourers from outside states. A different set of people operate the second level which is stockpiling the raw coal in various depots.
Generally one depot takes care of at least 30 illegal rat-hole mines. They are locally known as ‘Kanta’ as the raw yield is weighed there,” an insider said.
He said that the raw coal gets transported to Howrah, Benaras and Bangladesh via Mogra-Moregram intersection with the help of ‘pad mafias’ on the national highway. “These pad mafias use signs and code language in the pads, mentioning names of different Hindu deities, which determine the routes of the illegal coal transportation. For running the network in a hassle-free way, they offer hefty amounts to the local administrations, politicians and influential figures at both state and national level,” sources said, on condition of anonymity. He said that every month they send money, in several crores, to top politicians in the state.
The network of illegal coal transportation has a close nexus with local police administration as they take care of its smooth operation in the entire corridor. Sources said that the coal extracted from these illegal mines sells for Rs 300-400 a tonne, which is way cheaper than the actual rate, and they cater to all sponge iron, ferro alloy, glass factories and brick kilns across Bengal and other states.
The large stretch of the Raniganj-Asansol belt is in the control of the coal mafia. There had been incidents of miners getting trapped in these mines and being killed. If a miner is a local he is given Rs 1 lakh as compensation and if he is a tribal from a nearby state his family is given Rs 50,000. All political parties, be it the ruling or in the opposition, are in collusion with the coal mafia in the region,” sources said, pointing out that everybody knows about it but no one dares to question them or raise their voice as they will be killed.
According to an unconfirmed source in the ECL, the total annual turnover of illegal coal mining, only in the Raniganj-Asansol belt, was to the tune of Rs 300 in 2008 which has now grown manifold due to the involvement of Lala, Mondal and others. He said that there are many more names like Kale Singh, Raju Jha, Krishnendu Mukherjee and others, besides Anup Majhi and Joydeb Mondal, in the region who are allegedly involved in the illegal mining syndicate.
“It is difficult to make a dent in the syndicate as it is deeply entrenched. It is quiet likely that there might be a change in the seat of power in Bengal. The assembly elections scheduled to be held next year are going to be big.
“Naturally such drives will take place to reorganise the set equation. It is all about money, really big money. And everyone is involved in it. The reality is you cannot move without them as the money is the key source of funds to any political formation in the state,” a senior politician in Bengal said.