The problems of coal mafia and illegal mining in coalfields of West Bengal frequently crop up in the media and these were even mentioned by the Prime Minister during electioneering in the coal belt. The illegal mining has caused many accidental deaths and also contributed to worsening of law and order in many pockets of the coal field but the genesis of the problem and its solution have seldom been thought of. Recently I undertook a two-day visit to my village situated in the heart of the Ranigunje coalfield with at least half a dozen coal mines located within four kilometres of my village home.
I was told that two of these mines have been closed by Eastern Coalfields Ltd (ECL), a subsidiary of Coal India Ltd. ECL, an ideal labour-friendly organisation, would of course not retrench any labour and employee but would only shift them to different locations. As a man knowledgeable about coal industry in general and ECL in particular, I could appreciate that ECL in not too distant future would have to close a significant number of mines. The presence of coal around Ranigunje was discovered by two young British ng men John Sumer and Heatley in 1774, but organised coal mining could only be started during the second and third decades of the nineteenth century.
A number of British and Indian companies started operating coal mines in and around Ranigunje and Asansol. Prince Dwarokanath Tagore, grandfather of Rabindranath was one of the early entrepreneurs though subsequently he sold his share to an English Company. At the dawn of nationalization in 1973, collieries in West Bengal produced 19.2 million tonnes of coal which was around 26 per cent of all India production of 72.9 million tonnes and directly employed 1.23 lakh workers – 26 per cent of all India employment. Since nationalisation of coal mines in 1973, national coal production has increased to 735 million tonnes by 2018-19 – but West Bengal produces less than 5 per cent of national production.
The decline in coal mining activities in West Bengal had come for inevitable economic and strategic reasons. Mining activities in West Bengal coal mines got naturally restricted as the mines have become deeper, problematic and in many mines there were insufficient reserves for large-scale intensive mechanisation. With the existing high wage structure of coal miners, the nationalised coal industry had to switch over to large-scale, highly-mechanised opencast mining with a high productivity of around 8 to 10 tonnes per worker from which it now gets more than ninety per cent of its production.
But during almost two hundred years of mining, the areas of Ranigunje coalfield became highly built up and there are very few large vacant areas where large-scale, highly-mechanised opencast projects may be initiated. At the same time many underground old mines became too problematic and mining became very costly. The reserve was insufficient for high degree of mechanisation which definitely was needed as wages had become high and higher productivity was essential for economic reasons. Many underground mines and some small open cast mines have been closed for economic considerations and there are quite a number waiting their turn.
The number of workers employed consequently has decreased. The abandoned mines with some reserves which are easily approachable and existence of man power conversant with coal mining have given ideas to some persons to extract the easily approachable reserve in abandoned mines. The implementation of the idea would necessarily require money, some local influence and perhaps some muscle power also. No coal can be extracted from an abandoned mine unless there is local support or at least silence. The existence of these factors in coal fields of West Bengal have given rise to the coal mafia and illegal coal mining with frequent deaths.
At the same time, the state does get the benefit of cess and royalty from coal produced illegally. The situation may be radically altered if the Central and state governments can take a courageous decision to make mining in abandoned mines with reasonable reserves legal. Dozens of questions would definitely be hurled at the author of this article for this suggestion, perhaps doubting his mental stability and understanding of the situation. Some of these questions are – if it can be legally and safely mined, why did Coal India Ltd stop mining? Would these mines be safe and economically feasible?
I would like to answer these questions. First, Coal India Ltd abandoned many of these mines because with its wage structure, it was uneconomical to run small mines with low reserves and low productivity of around 0.6 tonnes of coal per man shift (OMS). These small mines would also not fit with Coal India’s strategy of getting maximum output from mechanised, open casting with productivity of around 8 to 10 tonnes of coal per man shift and remaining coal from mechanised under ground operation. The abandonment by Coal India of these mines and their closure does not mean that these mines cannot be operated economically and safely.
The Republic of China, the largest producer of coal in the world was operating a large number of very small mines managed by the District Councils a few years back and perhaps even now some of them may be in operation. I am quite conscious that safety record of these mines was dismal but that was the result of laxity in safety legislation of China and its indifferent implementation. Let me give some other facts from the Indian Coal Industry. In late 1950s and early sixties, I came across small coal mines producing around 100 tonnes per day being operated legally and safely.
These mines conformed to very stringent Indian Coal Mines Safely legislation and were under strict scrutiny of the office of Government of India’s Directorate General of Mines Safety – an organisation comparable to similar organisation any where in the world. It has to be admitted that these mines to remain economic would not be able to pay wages as per Coal India’s wage structure but they would be able to pay three times the minimum wage rate under MGNRES. These mines would have to be managed by Zila Parishads with involvement of Panchayat Samity.
This would have to be planned scientifically and coal produced may be used locally. To make the whole process legal, Coal India may transfer these mines on long-term lease to Zila Parishads which may then work these with the help of consultants and contractors. There may be some abandoned mines which cannot be worked even as small mines. These may also be transferred on lease to Zila Parishads for protection from illegal exploitation by coal mafia. Coal India of course would have to pay some nominal fee to local Panchayats for the purpose. The High Court of Calcutta recently ordered the West Bengal Government to appoint an officer with sufficient executive powers to check illegal mining. The job of the officer would be easier if local bodies were also involved in eliminating illegal mining.
(The writer is former Chief Scientist, Central Institute of Mining and Fuel Research, Dhanbad)