India’s illegal coal mines turn into secretive death pits
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.
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.
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.