In­dia’s il­le­gal coal mines turn into se­cre­tive death pits

The Washington Times Weekly - - World - By Shaikh Azizur Rah­man

ASAN­SOL, In­dia — When news of the mid­night ac­ci­dent at the main coal pit at Gangtikuli reached the preg­nant young wife of miner Pradip Bauri, she feared the worst.

By the time Ka­suri Bauri and a boat­load of fel­low vil­lagers — all with rel­a­tives work­ing at the mine — reached the scene nearly two miles down the Damodar River, the il­le­gal mine was com­pletely flooded. Wa­ter was gush­ing through the shaft from an ad­ja­cent mine, and the vil­lagers, armed with hand tools, were pow­er­less to stop it.

“He died a painful death be­cause no one will come in to help us in this il­le­gal mine now. It is a wretched life,” said Mrs. Bauri, bang­ing her fore­head against the wall of the pit, her grief played out be­fore television cam­eras a day af­ter the Aug. 1 dis­as­ter.

About 150 il­le­gal min­ers are thought to have died in the pit, but it is doubt­ful the ex­act toll will ever be known. The case has brought at­ten­tion to In­dia’s il­le­gal mines, which are con­trolled by crim­i­nal syn­di­cates.

Sto­ries change

By the time po­lice ar­rived at the Gangtikuli mine to in­ves­ti­gate ru­mors of a dis­as­ter, Mrs. Bauri and oth­ers had changed their sto­ries.

Po­lice sources said that when she was asked if her hus­band was buried at Gangtikuli, she said her hus­band had no con­nec­tion with il­le­gal min­ing and he worked as a porter 220 miles away in Cal­cutta.

She re­peated the same story to this re­porter this week, but fel­low vil­lagers con­firmed what was clear from the grief she showed on TV im­me­di­ately af­ter the dis­as­ter, that her hus­band was dead. Her brother-in-law also died in the mine, vil­lagers said.

“Po­lit­i­cal pres­sure forced us to come to Gangtikuli. But vil­lagers did not re­port any of their rel­a­tives miss­ing here,” said a po­lice of­fi­cer who at­tended the scene from the near­est po­lice sta­tion.

Habul Bauri, a watch­man at the il­le­gal mine, said there were at least 150 per­sons work­ing in the pit on the night of the flood­ing, and none es­caped.

‘Or­dered’ not to tell

The fa­ther of an­other miner said that hours af­ter the ac­ci­dent, the crim­i­nal syn­di­cate that ran the mine threat­ened the vil­lagers not to tell any­one that they had lost fam­ily mem­bers in the pit.

“If it was a gov­ern­ment-run mine, within min­utes, a res­cue op­er­a­tion would have be­gun. Sim­ply be­cause they were lift­ing coal il­le­gally, we could not cry for help and the gov­ern­ment did not help us,” said Ganesh Bauri, a mid­dleaged man in the vil­lage of Khayer Ki­yari which is thought to have lost about 30 men in the Gangtikuli ac­ci­dent.

“I have lost my son. But I can­not tell any­one of this big loss. I can­not even shed tears openly, I have been or­dered. It makes the tragedy more painful for me.” Now, three months af­ter the mine dis- aster Ka­suri Bauri and Ganesh Bauri are still afraid to re­veal that they had lost their loved ones at the il­le­gal coal mine at Gangtikuli.

Vil­lagers say the lo­cal “coal mafia” rou­tinely cov­ers up such tragedies to keep their lu­cra­tive busi­nesses run­ning.

There are thought to be about 500 il­le­gal mines run by about 150 dif­fer­ent crim­i­nal groups and per­sons around the Asan­sol coal field, where Gangtikuli is lo­cated.

It is thought there are 60,000 il­le­gal mines and about half a mil­lion il­le­gal min­ers in the east­ern In­dian coal belt.

Bribes paid to po­lice

A re­tired man­ager of a gov­ern­ment-run coal field said the coal mafia could op­er­ate be­cause bribes were paid to po­lice and vil­lagers worked in dan­ger­ous con­di­tions sim­ply to have a job.

“If a dis­as­ter as big as Gangtikuli’s gets ex­posed at a na­tional level, pres­sure from pow­er­ful agen­cies could stop il­le­gal coal min­ing in the area, caus­ing a mas­sive loss to the mafias and oth­ers in the game,” said the re­tired man­ager.

Ac­cord­ing to a study by DISHA, a so­cial ac­tivist group in the east In­dian min­ing city of Asan­sol, in the il­le­gal coal mines in the West Ben­gal-Jhark­hand coal belt ev­ery year about 300 large-scale ac­ci­dents take place, killing at least 2,000 min­ers. In most cases the deaths go un­re­ported be­cause of a po­lice-mafia nexus.

“A po­lice in­spec­tor who earns an an­nual salary of 90,000 ru­pees (U.S. $2,000) can eas­ily get 20 or 30 times as much in bribe from the mafias if he is posted any­where in the coal belt. It is like win­ning a jack­pot for him.

“He can never act against the op­er­a­tion of any il­le­gal mine,” said a lo­cal jour­nal­ist.

When for safety or other fea­si­bil­ity-re­lated rea­sons au­thor­i­ties stop lift­ing coal from a mine, it is filled up with sand, as per rule.

“But, mafias in no time take con­trol of such aban­doned mines, clear the sand and start lift­ing coal en­gag­ing a huge work force of min­ers on daily wage. Th­ese poor daily wage min­ers who, work­ing un­der pres­sure from their bosses to lift as much coal as pos­si­ble, of­ten flout stan­dard safety-re­lated norms, invit­ing tragedies for them­selves inside mine,” said an of­fi­cer with gov­ern­ment-run Mines Res­cue Sta­tion.

Press ex­poses dan­gers

How­ever, ex­ten­sive press cov­er­age and a cam­paign by se­nior po­lit­i­cal fig­ures have ex­posed both the sever­ity of the Gangtikuli ac­ci­dent and the haz­ardous con­di­tions that pre­vail across the il­le­gal min­ing in­dus­try.

Fi­nally, pres­sure from dif­fer­ent quar­ters forced the gov­ern­ment of West Ben­gal state, where Gangtikuli is lo­cated, to an­nounce a crack­down on il­le­gal min­ing in the area.

Two weeks af­ter the Gangtikuli ac­ci­dent West Ben­gal’s chief sec­re­tary, Amit Ki­ran Deb, said his gov­ern­ment “would spare no means to stop il­le­gal min­ing.”

Mr. Deb re­cently said that po- lice had closed down more than 1,500 il­le­gal coal mines by the end of Oc­to­ber.

“We have also ar­rested more than 500 il­le­gal min­ers. Some trucks car­ry­ing il­le­gal coal have been seized and our op­er­a­tion is con­tin­u­ing,” said Mr. Deb.

But so­cial an­a­lysts have ex­pressed doubts about the abil­ity of the gov­ern­ment to shut down the mines.

“For decades the po­lice-mafia nexus has re­mained in place. It is very dif­fi­cult to dis­man­tle this net­work of cor­rup­tion. The long arm of or­ga­nized crime can reach very high in the po­lice ad­min­is­tra­tion. In one case ac­tion was taken against a po­lice of­fi­cer found to be in col­lu­sion with the coal mafia. But the of­fi­cer who re­placed him was found to be equally cor­rupt,” said Kan­chan Sid­diqui, a com­men­ta­tor at the Cal­cutta-based daily States­man.

“Maybe in the wake of the Gangtikuli dis­as­ter po­lice have been forced to act against some mines. But it ap­pears to be a tem­po­rary mea­sure. Those mines will be op­er­a­tional again by the mafias soon, within a few months.”

‘Lifeblood’ for peo­ple

One op­er­a­tor of an il­le­gal coal mine in the Bard­haman dis­trict of West Ben­gal who em­ploys about 120 min­ers ad­mit­ted to pay­ing a monthly bribe of 25,000 ru­pees (U.S. $540) to the po­lice. He said when rain stopped work he did not pay the bribe.

“Some­times they be­come an­gry and ask me to send the men to the pit as soon as pos­si­ble. Some­times I even feel that I am in this busi­ness to serve po­lice or, I am em­ployed by the po­lice,” he said.

An­other il­le­gal mine op­er­a­tor said many work­ers were pre­pared to brave the dan­ger­ous con­di­tions be­cause they can earn twice as much as the av­er­age rural la­borer. He said even if the mines were closed, the work­ers them­selves would find a way to mine the pre­cious coal.

Those be­hind the il­le­gal min­ing said they were pro­vid­ing much­needed jobs. One politi­cian, who is ru­mored to run 15 il­le­gal mines, de­scribed the trade as “the lifeblood for most peo­ple in this area.”

“Up to 98 per­cent of the peo­ple in­volved are daily-wage min­ers. If il­le­gal min­ing stops, th­ese min­ers will be job­less,” he said.

He said the re­gion was in­fer­tile for farms and that tra­di­tional in­dus­tries had dried up.

“In the in­ter­ests of the liveli­hood of hun­dreds of thou­sands of poor fam­i­lies, we have to keep ig­nor­ing such ac­ci­dents,” he said.

In the last three months since the il­le­gal mine dis­as­ter in Gangtikuli killed about 150 min­ers 13 ac­ci­dents have taken place inside il­le­gal coal mines in the coal fields of east­ern In­dia killing at least 80 min­ers.

This coal mine 33 miles from Asan­sol in In­dia’s West Ben­gal state was aban­doned by the gov­ern­ment-owned min­ing author­ity 10 years ago. It has since been taken over by a lo­cal mafia which has put min­ers to work il­le­gally.

Shaikh Azizur Rah­man / The Wash­ing­ton Times

Min­ers dig­ging for coal at an il­le­gal mine in east­ern In­dia don’t wear hel­mets and don’t have a sup­ply of oxy­gen. Press cov­er­age and a cam­paign by In­dian po­lit­i­cal fig­ures have ex­posed the haz­ardous con­di­tions that pre­vail across the il­le­gal min­ing in­dus­try. Po­lice shut more than 1,500 il­le­gal coal mines by the end of Oc­to­ber.

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