Asansol: “There cannot be development where there is industry,” said Mansur Alam, whose extended family of 18 lost 15 bighas of land, approximately nine acres, when Integrated Coal Mining Limited (ICML), owned by the RP Sanjiv Goenka Group, set up its Sarisatolli coal mine in West Bengal’s Paschim Barddhaman region in the early 2000s.

At least 700 families in Barabani and Jamuria community development blocks lost their lands and livelihoods due to the coal mine, a reason for this paradoxical statement by Alam.

The Asansol-Raniganj belt in West Bengal’s Paschim Barddhaman district has seen extensive coal mining for over two centuries now. Commercial coal mining first started in India in 1774 in modern day Asansol’s Raniganj block.

West Bengal has 107 government coal mines operated by Eastern Coalfield Limited, a subsidiary of Coal India Limited, besides several privately operated coal mines. The ICML project stands out for being the first entirely private coal mine for power generation.

In September 1997, ICML served the first notice for acquiring land from residents of more than 10 villages. In 2002, ICML started operating its mine to supply coal to power plants of the Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation (CESC), the flagship company of the RP Sanjiv Goenka group.

ICML’s open cast mine at Sarisatolli, Asansol in West Bengal, February 28, 2022. Photo credit: Niladry Sarkar for IndiaSpend

The mine, which currently covers 613 hectares of land, “operates at a depth of 170 metres from surface and produces 1.8 metric tonnes of coal per annum”, as per ICML. The company prides itself as one of the safest mines in the region that won 13 awards during Eastern Coalfield Limited’s ‘Annual Safety Week’ celebration in 2019.

However, local people in the Rakhakura, Dighuli, Rashunpur, Jamgram, Madanpur, Anandagram and Sarisatolli villages, who have been adversely affected due to the ICML project, tell a different story of broken promises of jobs and rehabilitation, and false claims about local civic development, our ground reportage found. Adivasis and those from the Scheduled Castes make up about 43% of Barabani’s population and 39% of Jamuria’s, per the 2011 Census of India.

Despite repeated calls to ICML’s main office in Kolkata, no official has agreed to speak to this writer. E-mails to the office email address asking for comments had not received a response at the time of publishing. This story will be updated when ICML responds.

Coal is the most important source of energy in India, with 55% of India’s energy needs fulfilled by coal. India produced 716.08 million tonnes of coal in 2020-21. But because it degrades the environment, India plans to increase the use of renewable sources of energy in upcoming decades.

India’s existing coal-based thermal power plants generate 1.1 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide every year, amounting to about 2.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. India has promised to cut carbon emissions to net zero by 2070 at the 26th Conference of Parties, the world’s largest climate summit, in Glasgow in 2021.

The experience of the people of Asansol due to ICML’s Sarisatolli open cast mine is a cautionary tale at a time when the West Bengal government is planning a mine in Asia’s largest coal reserve in Birbhum district’s Deocha Pachami region.

Lack of employment

“We were paid Rs 18,000 for one bigha bowal [good quality/fertile land], Rs 12,000 for kanali [average quality land] and Rs 6,000 for danga [poor quality land],” said Alam, a resident of Rakhakura village. “They [ICML] had also promised that one person would be hired from every family, if we agreed to give six or more bigha land for the mine. But not even 100 persons from our villages got jobs. They have dug our lands to light up Kolkata. What kind of development is this?”

Alam’s neighbour, Nepal Bauri, said that earlier, agriculture was the main source of livelihood in the region, but “ICML has destroyed everything”. “I used to work on the zamindar’s land. Now he does not have land and I do not have work.”

Even those who were fortunate enough to land a permanent job at the ICML mine complain about their deteriorating condition. “When I joined, my salary was almost Rs 14,000; now it has been reduced to Rs 8,000,” said Mujibur (he uses one name), whose family had given up 28 bighas of land in return for Rs 2 lakh and two jobs.

The loss of land and lack of employment combine to cause large-scale distress migration. “In the last fifty years,” wrote University of Burdwan professors Rakhi Mondal and Biswaranjan Mistri in a 2021 paper, “21.3 million people have been displaced [across India] by the developmental projects like dam construction, development of mines, industrial development, establishment of wild life and sanctuaries (sic)“.

“Mining activities,” the professors wrote in their paper on the ground realities in the Raniganj Coalfield region, “play the second dominant role (12%) behind the displacement of people from their original land,” after industrial development. The professors focussed their study particularly on the Sonepur–Bazari open cast coal mine in Raniganj, which does not include the area of the ICML mine.

Smoke from underground fire can be seen at the ICML mine, February 28, 2022. Video credit: Niladry Sarkar for IndiaSpend

“People have discovered new ways to feed themselves,” said 54-year-old Nepal Bauri, pointing to the stream of motorbikes and cycles criss-crossing the region, carrying overloaded coal bags, each weighing more than 150 kg. “Illegal coal businesses have blossomed. What else will people do? Farming is not an option, ICML won’t give us jobs and the young people here are not educated enough to move out in search of better jobs elsewhere.”

A man carrying bags filled with illegally procured coal, while an ICML truck passes by, on March 1, 2022. Photo credit: Niladry Sarkar for IndiaSpend

Coal smuggling

In about 3,500 coal pits that operate illegally in the Asansol-Raniganj area, more than 35,000 people are directly employed while another 40,000 have indirect employment, according to a 2019 Press Trust of India report.

As ICML dug up and dumped tons of soil to create its open cast mine, locals began to find chunks of coal in them. Local women and children began collecting these lumps of coal and taking them to their villages, explained Manik Bauri, a local activist associated with Project Affected People’s Association (PAPA), an environmental organisation fighting for people affected by industrial projects. The menfolk took up the task of packaging this coal and transporting it to market.

Manik Bauri says that due to the badly maintained roads, large chunks of coal also fall out of the overburdened ICML trucks, which are collected by locals, who also bribe ICML security guards to allow them to sneak in and collect sacks of coal. Bags brimming with coal can be found in and around almost every house in Rakhakura village, and people transporting large bags brimming with coal is a common sight.

Overloaded coal bags outside a house in Rakhakura village, February 28, 2022. Photo credit: Niladry Sarkar for IndiaSpend

In a survey for her paper, ‘Illegal Coal Mining in Eastern India: Rethinking Legitimacy and Limits of Justice’, that appeared in the Economic & Political Weekly in 2007, researcher Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt found that about 2.5 million tonnes of coal was moved by cycles in the Asansol-Raniganj region alone in just one year, 2003-04. Coal smuggling is a way of life for people not just in the Asansol-Raniganj area, but for people in every coal belt across India, wrote Lahiri-Dutt, adding that illegal coal businesses were “an expression, locally, of unjust national mineral laws”.

She ascribed several reasons for this illegal trade, including “lack of safeguards and protection of poor people, despicable social and environmental practices by formal mines, the disregard for social impacts by mining engineers and technologists, a continuity of licence ‘raj’ in CIL [Coal India Limited], and the overall informalization of the economy”.

Geographer Sreenita Mondal said that socio-economic factors, followed by environmental distress, were majorly responsible for the flourishing coal smuggling. In her paper, ‘Tribal Dispossession Through Land Acquisition: A Study Of Open Cast Mines In West Bengal’, in the Journal of Rural Development in 2017, she said: “As the agriculture sector receded due to the expansion of the mining sector, the local inhabitants were forced to seek jobs in other sectors and what could be the alternative options for them in a single industry region? Therefore, they became part of the labour force involved in mining activities.”

“Since mining began, coal is everything in this region. ICML had promised that coal would be available to locals for their daily use. But they have failed to keep this promise as well,” Manik Bauri claimed, while explaining how the parallel coal economy has almost become a necessity for locals in the Barabani and Jamuria region. “We don’t have access to ICML coal, nor do we have enough money to buy cooking gas cylinders,” he explained. “There is no other option. The government thinks that arresting coal mafias will solve everything. It won’t. This is about the survival of lakhs of people.”

Locals wait for trucks to pass so they can collect the coal that drops from the trucks, February 28, 2022. Video credit: Niladry Sarkar for IndiaSpend

Villagers say no ‘proper’ social assessment then, no rehabilitation now

Both Mondal and Lahiri-Dutt explain that the involvement of Indian and global private players in the coal mining sector since the announcement of the National Mineral Policy (NMP) in 1993 had worsened the lives of people wherever a coal mine was operational. Asking the policymakers to “connect to social realities in mining areas” before leasing out a coal mine to private entities, Lahiri-Dutt argued that the NMP had blurred the “possibility and need for undertaking assessments and mitigations of social impacts”.

Anthropologists Samarendra Das and Felix Padel explained the link between the NMP and private players in mining sectors across India in their book ‘Out of this Earth: East India Adivasi and the Aluminium Cartel’. “The aim of the new mineral policy,” they wrote, “is to encourage mining and speed up clearance procedures for exploration as well as actual mining. The role outlined for the government is as ‘facilitator’ for mining companies, keeping at arm’s length from direct involvement, in line with neo-liberal orthodoxy.”

A resident of Rashunpur village, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, said, “If they had any idea about local realities, they would have rehabilitated us to a safer place after our homes got damaged. We got absolutely nothing from this ICML project. It took everything from us.” In this connection, Manik Bauri said ICML had not conducted a proper social or environmental assessment on the ground. “They just handed out notices and orders to locals. Even at panchayat or block levels, there were no consultation meetings or anything similar.”

The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) had accorded an Environmental Clearance to the ICML open cast mine in accordance with the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 1994.

The absence of proper assessment reports was now leading to lack of rehabilitation for people whose homes suffered damage due to blasting in coal mines, Manik Bauri said. According to this Map World Forum paper, more than 43% of the houses in the Asansol-Raniganj region have suffered cracks and damages due to mining activities such as underground blasting.

Barabani Block Development Officer Surajit Ghosh said that ICML was operating after acquiring adequate clearance from the central government. On being asked about local people’s claim that the company had manipulated its EIA, Ghosh said, “I don’t think we had any role in it. It was between MoEFCC and ICML. Everything they do has been permitted by the Centre.”

Calls to the Regional Office (RO) of the MoEFCC, under whose jurisdiction West Bengal falls, and to the regional officer, Sandeep Nandi, in Bhubaneswar, were not answered. We also sent an email to R.K. Dey, the Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests of the MoEFCC in Bhubaneswar, for a comment on the allegations that ICML did not conduct a proper environmental and social assessment on the ground. The story will be updated when the ministry responds.

“After many homes were damaged due to blasting at Sarisatolli mine, ICML constructed quarters for the affected families. But those one-storey homes had permanent gable roofs, so locals rejected them,” the Rashnupur resident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said. “People asked them to provide houses with flat roofs so that more floors could be built in future. But ICML did not listen. Governments, both central and state, have done nothing to help us. Now hundreds of homes are lying empty and we are living right next to this huge open cast mine. I wonder how much ICML lost as a result.”

Trinamool Congress’ Pradip Kumar Mukherjee, vice-chairman of the Churulia Gram Panchayat, on the other hand, blamed land losers for not accepting what ICML had provided. “There’s no logic to their [the locals] demand. We don’t think anything is wrong with those quarters. Everyone knows that when mining happens in a region, problems may arise. Local people should have adjusted.”

The unused and empty rehabilitation quarters in Jamuria, March 1, 2022. Photo credit: Niladry Sarkar for IndiaSpend

Women and the menace of illegal brickfields

Women have been particularly impacted by the mines. Agriculture and forest-based livelihoods were predominant in the region and women were heavily engaged in these activities, locals said. But since the beginning of the ICML project, women have had to look for other jobs. Female workers have increased in Barabani from 6,078 in 2001 to 7,219 in 2011, but this is mostly because many now work as cheap labourers in illegal brick plants or coal pits, in unsafe and hazardous conditions, residents of the area said.

It happened, Alam said, because the ICML did not keep its promise of providing vocational training to the women. “ICML had assured us that our women would be trained in vocational courses so they could easily look for alternate employment. But it turned out to be a joke. Earlier they were engaged in farming. But after ICML came, women lost their work in the field and forest,” he said. “While many men move to Asansol, Barddhaman and other nearby towns to work in factories and elsewhere, women mostly work in the illegal brickfields, and for those who can’t find a job, there is always something related to coal.”

Mukherjee, of the Churulia Gram Panchayat, refuted the claim. He said that ICML was indeed providing training to women in several vocational courses such as “handicrafts and tailoring”. “Women of Rakhakura, Anandapur and other villages have received this training and have become self-employed. I don’t know how the company acted during the Communist Party of India (Maoist)’s tenure, but ICML has provided many benefits after 2011.”

Local women collecting coal from the road outside ICML’s Sarisatolli mine, on February 28, 2022. Photo credit: Niladry Sarkar for IndiaSpend

Majgura Bibi, a resident of Rakhakura village, said she deserved a permanent job, but “only one woman got a job. My father gave more than six bigha land, but I did not get a job. They [ICML authorities] did not provide any reason. Now my sons are working in illegal coal dumpers,” she said. Till date, the ICML has not hired another local woman in its open cast mine, and so women have no recourse but to work in the illegal brickfields, Majgura said.

According to Durgapur Government College professors Debalina Kar and Debnath Palit, 69% of people in the Asansol subdivision and nearby areas believed that finding alternative sources of income was their only option. Kar and Palit, after conducting a survey in the Raniganj coalfield area, wrote in their 2014 paper that brick plants emerged as the first-choice destination of work for locals “as coal is much less preferred as a source [of income] if there’s an alternative”.

As a result, hundreds of illegal brick plants have come up in the region. According to a Bengali news report from 2017, there were about 600 such brick plants operating in Asansol subdivision alone. Locals suggest that the number has now reached well over 1,000. “There is no option other than working in brick plants. We don’t get any other job here,” said 60-year-old Kalo Moni, a resident of Bauri Para in Barabani block, who works in a brick field nearby. She was not sure if the plant she was working in was legal, but “my contractor pays me regularly”, she said.

The Barabani block development officer, Surajit Ghosh, refused to comment about the sprawling growth of illegal brick fields in his block.

Kalo Moni, who is a recipient of the state government’s widow pension, said she did not have a cooking gas cylinder in her home, and therefore bought coal from local vendors who procure them from smugglers.

Kalo Moni with her granddaughter, pictured on March 1, 2022. Photo credit: Niladry Sarkar for IndiaSpend

Pollution, the elephant in the room

Bauri Para, as the name suggests, is home to the people of the Bauri community, the lowest in the Indian caste hierarchy. Like most other SC communities, people from the Bauri community have been poor for generations. Living beside Barabani railway station and the ICML siding, from where the company’s coal is transported to other parts of West Bengal, the people of Bauri Para not only face financial and social hardships but also suffer from extreme pollution.

The ICML siding area and Bauri Para are separated by a broken brick wall. A similar topography exists on the other side of railway tracks. Locals call the region ‘Chamar Para’, after another SC community. Again, a broken brick wall acts as a buffer between where they live and the coal dumper which functions round the clock.

“Even the trees have changed colour to black here,” said Chandan, who did not share his last name, a resident of Bauri Para. “Leaves don’t grow properly now. Even things inside our homes turn black. We breathe only coal. Yet no one has dared to say anything to ICML. We and the people of Chamar Para have been living like this since ICML began working here.”

Even though there are localities of Muslim, upper caste Barnawals and other non-Bengali communities in the area, they are shielded from the worst effects of coal dumping because Bauri Para and Chamar Para act as buffers. The poor and the tribal people are the worst-affected by the mining sector in India, Visva-Bharati University’s Sharmila Chandra says in her paper, ‘The Vulnerable Mining Community’, published in 2015 in the International Journal of Environmental Planning and Management.

Swaraj Das, a climate activist associated with ‘mines, minerals & PEOPLE (mm&P)’, a collective of “individuals, institutions and communities concerned and affected by mining”, said that many people living in villages next to coal mines and sidings suffer from severe lung diseases. Doctors in local hospitals or primary health centres were often not well equipped to diagnose such diseases, he said, and thus, people never realise the actual health hazards they are subjected to, far less receive proper treatment.

“The pollution at the Barabani ICML siding is unbearable,” said Das. “People are constantly breathing coal dust and ICML doesn’t seem to be bothered at all. What they are doing here is absolutely illegal.” A resident of Dighuli village said: “Most of us here have developed asthma. Every house in our village has at least one person who has breathing issues.”

The coal dumping site at Barabani railway station, as seen from Chamar Para, March 1, 2022. Photo credit: Niladry Sarkar for IndiaSpend

“Inhalation of coal dust is a continuous process which leads to coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP), otherwise called black lung disease or anthracosis,” Chandra wrote in her 2015 paper. “Villagers of Ratibati, Narsamuda, Siarsol, Ninga, Satgram, Barachak, Phatehpur, Mangalpur and Baradhema in the Raniganj coalfield area of West Bengal are severely affected by this disease.”

Other ecological impacts

Aside from all of this, water contamination and scarcity of groundwater add to the woes of the locals. “For 150 families here, only one tap is functional,” Chandan of Bauri Para said. “Water is available only for two and a half hours between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. You tell me, is it possible for so many people to collect water for an entire day in such a short period of time?”

The World Map Forum paper cited above says that underground mining has caused the water levels in local ponds and wells to go down. It estimated that 31.25% of households in Asansol, and 32% in Raniganj, suffer from a chronic scarcity of drinking water.

“Earlier,” said Maunik Bauri, “water was available at 40-50 feet. Now, water can’t be found even after digging 100-150 feet.”

Mukherjee, of the Churulia Gram Panchayat, did not agree that there were concerns about the availability of freshwater. “We have provided water connections to almost every village now. Yes, some villages might not have proper facilities to get water, but we are working on that. Water is not a major issue here.”

Citing other ecological concerns rising from coal mines, the Map World Forum paper said that patchy and continuous mining activities have degraded forests and agriculture, reduced biodiversity, mining waste is dumped on land, and the land is losing its productivity with the passage of time.

The Rashnupur resident said that there was a forest on one end of the ICML mine, where they would even spot leopards. “There were many Mahua trees and thousands of people’s livelihood depended on them. ICML had promised tree plantation in compensation, but did not do anything.”

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