Rat-hole mining: A litany of corruption & greed
Despite numerous efforts by the public, the press and responsible officials, the illegal and dangerous practice of rat-hole mining persists in Assam, indicating the presence of a deeply rooted and powerful coal syndicate
A car parking coupon costing Rs 50,000 can be collected from specific agents of the police administration. Such a large amount of money being charged for just car parking implies that this is not a regular parking coupon. These coupons are sold in the old town of Margherita, a place surrounded by a string of reserved forests commonly known as rainforests in Tinsukia district of Upper Assam. On average, 200 tokens are sold every day throughout the year except in case of any natural disaster. On some days, even 300 coupons are sold. These parking coupons are sold to truck drivers, as an illegal road tax on unlawful transportation of coal. The parking coupon is a permit to carry illegal coal, without any hindrance, from Margherita near Assam-Arunachal border to West Bengal border in Lower Assam. Every day thousands of tons of coal travel hundreds of miles on national highways to reach West Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh or Punjab. However, royalty from the sale of coal or revenue generated from parking coupons does not get deposited in the treasury of the Assam government. Illegal coal, extracted and smuggled out of the three police station areas of Lekhapani, Ledo and Margherita, is an entirely unlawful business worth around Rs 2,000 crores in a year. This money is shared under the strict supervision of the main ruling party in power in the state. Political leadership, police, bureaucrats and the fourth pillar of democracy, or at least a significant section of the media, regularly receive a portion of money from illegal coal syndicate.
This illegal coal mining is going on in and around Dehing-Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary. But it was not supposed to happen in this way.
Dehing-Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary, spread over 111.19 sq km, is located in Dibrugarh and Tinsukia districts of Assam, bordering Arunachal Pradesh. It is famous for Assam Valley tropical wet evergreen forests and is one of India's last lowland evergreen rainforests. This virgin forestland is also referred to as the 'Amazon of the East'.
The first important step to protect Dehing-Patkai was taken by the Assam Government in 2003. The designated coal mining areas (inherited by the Coal India Ltd, as explained later) were carved out in 2003 to form the Dehing-Patkai Elephant Reserve comprising the string of rainforests such as Namphai, Tinkupani, Tipong, Lekhapani, Paharpur, Makumpani etc. The Dehing-Patkai Elephant Reserve was declared under the Wildlife Conservation Act, 1980. The Dehing-Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary was declared a protected forest in 2004. Both the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve(2003) and the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary(2004) were notified as protected areas as per the Lekhapani Declaration. These were announced by the Congress Government in 2002 through then President of India, APJ Abdul Kalam in the biodiversity festival called the Dehing-Patkai Festival in February 2002. The primary purpose of identification of elephant corridors and declaration of the forest as a protected area was to prevent the spread of mining of coal in areas adjacent to the sanctuary. That purpose has failed in recent times.
Mining of coal in areas adjacent to Dehing-Patkai sanctuary dates back to the British time. Alexander Bruce (a British Prospector) discovered superior-quality, waxy coal in Dehing Patkai. In May 1880. An agreement was reached between the British government and Shaw, Finlayson & Company, based in London, to build a railway line between Dibrugarh and Shadia in Upper Assam. Assam Railways and Trading (AR&T) Company was created to implement that agreement in 1881. Coal was found in Ledo shortly after the work began on the railway line. There was no need for deep mining to get hold of this very high-quality coal. To find 'black gold', AR&T Company leased land from the British government for a period of 30 years and started mining in Ledo.
In 1973, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi nationalised coal mining and sale. The coal business of AR&T company went to the state-owned Coal India. In continuation with the British rules, Coal India continued to mine coal on a 30-year lease from the Indian Government. This lease, which expired in 2003, has not been renewed since then due to bureaucratic delays and various rules and regulations. However, Coal India, which continued to mine coal, had in the meantime resorted to'open cast mining' to cut-down costs. In 2012, though Coal India sought permission from the Assam Government to start new mining operations, the then Congress Government did not take any special initiative on Coal India's application. In the same time, controversy began in the context of this request from Coal India. Environmentalists and environmental organisations were vocal in their opposition to the new coal mining or 'open cast mining' in the area adjacent to the Dehing-Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary.
The Assam Government during the previous Congress regime forwarded the Coal India proposal (vide letter No FRS. 108/2012/320 dated April 2, 2013) seeking prior approval of the Central Government under Section 2 of the 'Forest (Conservation) Act', 1980. The proposal was placed before the State Board for Wildlife (SBWL) in the seventh meeting of the board on October 21, 2014. The SBWL requested the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) and the Chief Wildlife Warden to constitute an expert committee. The Committee so formed submitted its report in 2016, which was placed before the ninth SBWL meeting. The expert committee recommended the proposal subject to the implementation of a set of mitigation measures.
In 2016, the BJP-Assam Gana Parishad-Bodo People's Front coalition government took over the power of the state from the Congress. The 10th meeting of the SBWL recommended the proposal in 2018. The minutes state, 'The physical verification report conducted by CF, EAC, Jorhat was discussed in the meeting, and as the site was found to be located just on the boundary of the 10 km radius from the Dehing-Patkai WLS it was considered falling within the Eco-Sensitive Zone. After deliberation on the matter, the board recommended the proposal subject to compliance with a set of mitigation measures as suggested by the Expert Committee.' After the recommendation of the SBWL, Assam government forwarded the proposal to the MoEF&CC on August 21, 2018 (Letter No. FRS.171/2018/14) with a request to 'place the matter before the National Board for Wildlife(NBWL) for necessary clearance.' Amid the countrywide lockdown, the 57th meeting of the Standing Committee of NBWL was held on April 7, 2020, through videoconference, and was chaired by Prakash Javadekar, the Union Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change. Among other decisions, the NBWL recommended approval of the proposal for the use of 98.59 hectares from the Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest for a coal-mining project by North-Eastern Coal Field (NECF), a unit of Coal India Limited. Protests against the NBWL's decision were voiced by various student-youth organisations, people associated with the environmental protection movement. A Public Interest Litigation has also been filed in the Guwahati High Court. Recently, Coal India has stopped digging in the wake of the controversy.
In Assam and Meghalaya, illegal mining activities are notorious and are called rat-hole mining. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned it in 2014 and retained the ban in 2015 on the grounds of it being unscientific and unsafe for workers. But soon after the ban was announced, rat-hole digging in Ledo and Margherita increased by leaps and bounds. The coal mafia has been able to camouflage their various illegal activities through the cover of a value-added coal industrial activity known as the 'Coke Coal Oven Units' which have sprung up like mushrooms over the years. The standard modus operandi is to obtain a 'NOC' through 'buying off the shelf' from the local office of the Pollution Control Board of Assam located at Dibrugarh. Once they get a legal sanctity in the form of a NOC, the mafia puts up well-fortified 'Coal Bhattas' which become the sectoral hub of illegal coal mining and coal transportation. All illegally extracted coal are dumped and transported with fake challans from the premises of these so-called 'coke manufacturing industrial units'.
According to the then Margherita MLA and State Government Minister and now Congress MP, Pradyut Bardalai, "In 11 reserved forests and Dehing-Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary in Tinsukia district, Coal mafia has dug up 4,000 to 5,000 rat-hole coal mines."
Without administrative help, it is neither possible for the coal syndicate to get the no-objection certificate nor is it possible to ply hundreds of trucks every day. At least 200 trucks carry thousands of tons of coal every day, crossing hundreds of kilometres of national highways and enter West Bengal and Bihar. All these trucks use fake documents. Although the Government has publicly denied the reality of illegal coal mining, the existence of rat-hole mining can be understood by looking at official correspondences since 2017. PK Hazoari, Secretary and Commissioner, Department of Mines and Mineral Resources Assam, wrote to the Deputy Commissioner, Tinsukia District on February 18, 2017, "I am directed to request you to take all necessary steps to stop all kinds of illegal coal mining, arrange to prosecute those involved in the illegal mining under 'Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation Act 2015' (as amended) and submit the report at the earliest."
"On December 2, 2018, Pranjal Kumar Gogoi, a senior geologist in the Geology and Mining Department of the state government, wrote to the officer-in-charge of the Lekhapani police station in Tinsukia district, '...... causing heavy revenue loss to State Exchequer. The miscreants are illegally doing mining operation without any permission from the competent authority and without valid permits, etc. The said miscreants are operating an illegal mining operation in a hazardous manner. Thereby, it may create a serious kind of disaster by putting public life at risk. It is, therefore, humbly prayed before your Honour to take necessary steps as per law against miscreants who are operating illegal mining in and around Lekhapani area and restrain them immediately from such illegal mining.' Still, the warnings and requests were left unheeded. Rat-hole mining was not stopped. On December 13, 2018, in the Jaintia Hills district of the neighbouring state of Meghalaya, 15 workers were killed when water leaked during rat hole mining. Though illegal mining stopped in Meghalaya on the orders of the Supreme Court, illegal coal mining continued uninterrupted in Dehing-Patkai. A month and a half after the Meghalaya mine accident, on February 4, 2019, GS Panesar, Director, Department of Geology and Mining, Government of Assam, wrote to the Deputy Commissioner and Superintendent of Police, Tinsukia, saying, 'It has been learnt that illegal rat-hole mining is going on in some of the areas in Tinsukia district. Under the circumstances, I would like to request you to kindly take necessary action to stop illegal rat-hole mining immediately.' On August 22, 2019, JK Borah, General Manager of the state-owned North Eastern Coal (NEC) Fields, informed the Tinsukia District Superintendent of Police, 'This is to bring to your kind notice that NEC has been dispatching coal through rail rake only and no dispatch has been carried out by road transport since August 1, 2019. The mode of dispatch by road transport will be stopped until further development. This will facilitate the State Authorities to check the legality of coal being transported via National Highway and identify any illegal coal being transported.'
JK Borah was compelled to write this letter because both the Government as well as the illegal trucks carry coal without any hindrance on national highways. And, there is no easy way to tell which truck belongs to the Government and which one is illegal just by looking at documents possessed by the drivers. Illegal coal trucks ply on the national highways with forged documents and claim to be one of Coal India or NE Coal Fields' legal trucks. So North Eastern Coal Fields is forced to leave the road and take the railroad. Even this approach did not deter the illegal coal syndicate, and the procession of illegal coal trucks on national highways continues unabated. Sometimes, as a result of the media coverage of the illegal coal mining issue, some action and clamour could be observed. However, this temporary spurt in these activities is soon replaced by an eerie silence. The reason behind this carefully maintained silence is, according to the critics, the fact that hundreds of crores of rupees are transacted in this illegal coal business, and a part of that money secretly reaches various levels of the administration.
It may be noted that Pradyut Bordoloi demanded in Parliament on July 2, 2019, that the Centre must send an inter-ministerial fact-finding team to probe 'large-scale illegal coal mining' in Tinsukia district of Upper Assam. He claimed that the coal syndicate at Margherita in Tinsukia district was controlled directly from the Chief Minister's office.
I cannot say whether the Chief Minister's Office is regulating the illegal coal business. However, an important question arises in the role of the police. Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal himself is in charge of the Home Ministry of the State, and the police department is under the Ministry of Home Affairs. Why is it that every year the police administration of Tinsukia district has to be reminded to take action against illegal coal mining and the coal mafias? Is it possible to do unlawful business in public for such a long period and in such a brazen manner without the notice of the police? Hence, I am convinced that rat-hole mining in the Dehing-Patkai forest is not just an isolated incident, but it is an organised crime.
Recently, a storm is raging in Assam on the question of allowing North India Coalfields, a subsidiary of Coal India, to carry out new excavations. In the face of the strong opposition from various sections of the population, including environmentalists and student-youth organisations, the State Government has been on the back foot on the issue of allowing coal mining in the Dehing-Patkai area. The only declared goal of the mining opponents is to protect the Dehing-Patkai forest.
While the loss of revenue and the issue of environmental degradation are significant, another aspect, which is equally important to me, is often forgotten. It is the plight of the workers. Extremely poor people are brought from Dhubri, Goalpara districts of Lower Assam for rat-hole mining. At the risk of their lives, they enter into rat-holes without any safety provisions and in all seasons. Many times water enter in these rat-holes or the hole walls collapse leading to the death of poor, nameless daily wage earners. Records of the deaths of these people cannot be found in any official documents. If the people's representatives at all levels, from the members of the panchayats and the municipalities to the MLAs and MPs, had been vocal against such acts of corruption and injustice, would it have been possible to end the crimes of the coal syndicate in the heart of 'Amazon of the East?'