On 12 February, Assam industries and commerce minister Chandra Mohan Patowary informed the assembly that a CID probe has been ordered into the smuggling of coal from the mines at Ledo-Margherita on the eastern flank of the state bordering Arunachal Pradesh. The government swung into action only after the National Green Tribunal (NGT) cracked the whip late last month ordering an inspection of the affection zone and “appropriate action” if the allegations were proved true.
That the BJP-led government in Assam has been reluctant to check the racket is revealed by an earlier report of the CID which was submitted to the state home department in January last year. The department initiated a probe after a complaint by the general secretary of the BJP branch in Margherita Krishna Kumar Saikia.
“The Enquiry Officer has come to know during the discreet enquiry that the illegal transportation of coal has been going on for last many years and it is still continuing with support from the police, local politician, some officials of Coal India Ltd, etc,” said the report which was compiled by additional superintendent of police Nirmal Baishya.
The report identified the mining areas of Ledo, Lekhapani, Tirap and Tipong in Margherita Circle of Tinsukia district as being impacted by the smuggling. The official found that on 23 October 2016, 75 coal laden trucks moved out of the mines to Tinsukia after sunset although Coal India Limited had issued passes only to 14 trucks. He noted that that three persons have been arrested after the murder and rape of a girl Tukhing Tikhak and several cases have been registered after dead bodies were recovered from the mines.
North Eastern Coalfield (NEC), which is a unit of Coal India Limited, has also been constantly petitioning the police for an investigation and apprehension of the ringleaders responsible for the pilferage. According to one estimate, NEC had registered as many as 31 FIRs with Ledo police outpost in 2017 and 24 in 2016.
History of pilferage
The plunder of coal in the four mines around Ledo-Margherita has been an open secret in the state which no government has been willing to bring to an end. The illicit activity seemed to have picked up in the last one-and-a-half decades or so with more parties and daily wagers appearing in the mines to dig out coal. Trucks loaded with coal then head to different destinations under the cover of darkness including some that are located outside the state.
Peasant leader and Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) adviser Akhil Gogoi claimed, “This has been on since the previous Congress regime in Assam but has increased after the BJP-led government came to power in 2016 in the state. The coal thieves are hand-in-gloves with the police and administration.”
Several locals in Ledo-Margherita The Wire spoke to corroborated Gogoi’s views and the contents of the CID report about the involvement of the police and influential local leaders including a well-known politician of the BJP who had been in the thick of controversy two years ago. Their activities are known to everybody; their tentacles run deep and far ensuring smooth conduct of their work irrespective of the government in power.
According to informed sources, all mining activities have currently stopped following the government announcement of an investigation by CID. “But for how long? With the police managed and the government willing to turn a blind eye, it is only a matter of time before these activities are resumed,” said a businessman who was engaged with a coal syndicate some years ago in Ledo.
Government officials are tight lipped over the matter. Director general of Assam police Mukesh Sahay said it was “unethical” to comment on a subject under investigation. When asked about the non-action and involvement of the police, he said “You should ask the CID as they are in a better position to brief you on this topic.”
There are two main coal producing collieries in Ledo-Margherita under NEC – Tikak and Tirap – in close proximity to a few villages which facilitate the illegal entry of the residents for digging coal. The situation is aggravated by the involvement of non-local immigrants from different parts of the state who take shelter in rented rooms near the collieries.
Large mobs of migrants and locals including women and children and some of whom are armed with country-made guns dig out coal with sharp tools which are then transported in gunny bags and head slings to selected spots in the villages and subsequently loaded onto vans and trucks.
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Illegal mining is another facet of the racket which is carried out in remote areas inside dense forests along the hills of Namdang adjoining Tikak along the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border. “Regular checks are undertaken and illegal mines are discovered and closed down wherever possible either by using manual labour or by using mining explosives. However, due to difficulty in access to such locations, many illegal mines may remain undetected,” said a report submitted by security officer of NEC N.B. Singh to additional deputy commissioner of Tinsukia Partha Pratim Boiragi on 13 August 2016.
To stem these activities, NEC has strengthened the security by deploying armed personnel in the mines who have been provided with vehicles, dragon lights and communication sets. However, confrontations with the thieves who are always in large numbers have escalated into law and order problems on many occasions with the women folk always coming to the front to stall the guards’ advance.
So, is there a way out of the muddle? In another letter, NEC has suggested two immediate steps to begin with for the clean-up operation – verification of all nearby ‘Coke Bhattas’ and their source of raw material and second, ensuring police verification of tenants before they are given accommodation in areas near the collieries.
Some residents also recommended an immediate end to open cast mining and switching to underground mining as in Tipong, one of the four collieries operated by NEC. Student organisations like the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chhatra Parishad (AJYCP) have staged demonstrations in Margherita demanding safe and scientific mining in the region.
Rajeev Bhattacharyya is a senior journalist in Guwahati and author of Rendezvous With Rebels: Journey to Meet India’s Most Wanted Men.