Andal (West Bardhaman): In July 2020, Tarun Gope, 38, was one of nearly 25 home-owners who lost their homes overnight in Harishpur town, in the Andal block of West Bengal’s Paschim Bardhaman district.
“I cannot explain in words how dangerously the ground shook,” Gope said. “We came out in fear and saw our neighbours’ houses collapsing as if they were built of paper.” Gope has lived since then in a rented house with his family of 10 in Andal town, 5 km away from Harishpur.
The tremors, which caused some houses to collapse and others to develop deep cracks, were the result of two back-to-back incidents when the ground gave way in the Madhabpur opencast mine located a stone’s throw away from the Harishpur primary school. The subsidence—movement, sloping or sinking of the ground caused by readjustments or collapses in underground mine areas—forced 400 people to flee the village looking for shelter elsewhere.
Neighbouring Majhipara village, with a habitation of about 50 Adivasi families, also felt the tremors. Gope said his home could collapse at any time.
A few families continued to live in Harishpur, in constant fear. “I don’t have enough money to go and live elsewhere,” said Kajol Kumar Chowdhury. His two-storey house subsided by a few inches and developed minor cracks.
Earth subsidence incidents, such as the July 2020 event in Harishpur, destroy hundreds of houses every year in West Bengal’s Raniganj Coal Field (RCF), leaving thousands of people homeless.
With reserves of 49.17 billion tonnes of coal, RCF is India’s second largest coal field, covering an area of 443.50 sq km. Raniganj is also the birthplace of coal mining in India, with operations dating back to 1774 and commercial mining established in the 1840s . Some regions of Bankura, Birbhum, Purulia and Jharkhands’s Dhanbad districts form parts of RCF.
The region is home to 98 government-operated collieries alongside scores of illegal mining operations. According to a Map World Forum paper, almost 43% of houses in the RCF area suffer cracks due to coal mining activities.
According to former director (personnel) of public sector undertaking Coal India Limited Anup Krishna Gupta, subsidence incidents generally occur around an open cast mine when mining operations meet closed tunnels of old mines that were either stacked with sand or where pillars were built to continue supporting the upper layers of land following extraction of coal. In some cases, old tunnels were also filled with water.
“When you dig the old tunnels, everything comes out, the balance is disturbed and oxygen flows in to cause fire under the ground,” Gupta told Article 14. As a result, everything beneath the top layers of the soil turns into ashes, leading to earth subsidence. “... any infrastructure on the ground in that region comes under threat,” said Gupta, who co-authored the 2018 paper ‘Subsidence-A Major Effect of Coal Mining in Raniganj Coalfield’ with professors Ajoy Kumar Dutta of Jadavpur University and Rita Basu of Calcutta University.
“Natural hazards and coal mining subsidence can have a detrimental effect on land uses,” they wrote in their paper. “Structures can be demolished, rendered unusable or made uninhabitable instantaneously or in a short space of time.”
With Growth Of Illegal Mining, More Death Traps
Any mining in West Bengal and Jharkhand that takes place without the official acknowledgment of Eastern Coalfields Limited (ECL, a subsidiary of Coal India Ltd) is termed as illegal and informal mining. Despite government agencies including the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Enforcement DIrectorate (ED) trying to curb these operations, they have continued.
According to a 2011 investigative report by Sanhati, a collective working in solidarity with peoples’ movements in India, informal mining has become a parallel industry to the nationalised coal mining sector. It is estimated that 20% to 30% of India’s total coal production comes from illegal mines. “The process of ‘nationalisation’ re-shaped the ‘illegalised sector’ and its relation to the ‘official economy’, the boundaries of a hierarchical division within the local working class were re-drawn and enforced in legal terms,” the report said.
Gupta believes illegal mining and leasing out mines to private contractors for work are major factors behind subsidence incidents.
“Generally, an experienced ECL engineer would know the boundaries. But with contractual work and illegal mining, interests have shifted,” he said. “The desire to get more coal in a shorter period of time is resulting in unscientific mining.”
He said vertical holes, called 'rat holes', are dug in a mine by illegal operators. These may lead to a maze of tunnels inside. “Illegal miners are unaware of past mining activities in the region. When these rat holes meet with old tunnels, oxygen flows in and the materials that were used to fill the tunnels to provide support for the upper layers leak out. Then it becomes a breeding ground for underground fire and earth subsidence,” he said.
Dr Sribas Goswami, the head of department (Sociology) at Calcutta University’s Serampore College, wrote in a 2018 paper that the rat-holes have “opened up new, albeit illegal, avenues of informal employment. Many abandoned uneconomic mines of ECL and BCCL (Bharat Coking Coalfields Ltd), both underground and opencast, are thriving as illegal mining sites.”
He wrote that the mines were “death traps” where unplanned coal exploitation and subsequent roof collapses led to many unreported deaths.
Gupta blamed a similar series of events in collieries for more than five subsidence incidents in the last three years in Kajora, one of the 14 operational areas of ECL. It is located in Durgapur subdivision of Paschim Bardhaman, spread across Andal and Pandabeswar CD blocks.
Social, Economic Ramifications Of Subsidence Incidents
In Porascole in Pandabeswar CD block, more than 70 families, including ECL employees’ households, were left homeless on 14 May 2021 due to earth subsidence triggered by mining activities in the nearby Naba Kajora and Porascole collieries. Apart from the houses, the local health centre and school subsided a few inches below the ground level and developed cracks.
Most of the victims in Porascole shifted to ECL residential quarters that were lying empty. While the citizens of Harishpur were offered the quarters by ECL, victims in Porascole had to break in.
“After our houses suffered cracks and became unlivable due to subsidence, we did not have any other place to go to. So, we decided to capture the vacant quarters of ECL employees,” said Janata Bauri in Porascole, whose husband, Ajay Bauri is an ECL employee. “We will stay put until they resettle us to somewhere safer.”
She said they had a simple but decent life thanks to her husband’s job with ECL. “Like any middle-class family, we built a two-storey house with all our savings put in marble flooring,” the 42-year-old told Article 14.
Her neighbour Annakhetra Pal demanded a safe and permanent accommodation far away from coal mines for every family that had suffered due to a subsidence event.
Pal’s husband used to work at a small shop in Porascole, which was lost to subsidence, before migrating to Kerala to find work. Many people had small businesses such as general stores, sweets shops or cycle garages. “Since most of us live in ECL quarters now and no shops are allowed inside the quarters premises, all businesses have shut down,” said Pal.
Chittananda Bauri said the victims should be resettled and also given employment. “People don’t have work. Only house and monetary compensation would not be enough, we need jobs as well,” he said.
University of Burdwan professors Rakhi Mondal and Biswaranjan Mistri wrote in their 2021 paper, which examined the region around Sonepur–Bazari opencast coal mine in Raniganj, “21.3 million people have been displaced [across India] by the developmental projects like dam construction, development of mines, industrial development, establishment of wildlife sanctuaries." They estimated that mining was the second-most important factor for displacement of people (accounting for 12% of all displacement) after industrial development projects.
Environmental Hazards, Respiratory Diseases, Skin Ailments
Local people living around the mines also complained about facing severe pollution and catching long-term health hazards due to it. “We are constantly breathing stone and coal dust. Every family living in such close vicinity of an opencast mine has at least one person suffering from respiratory diseases,” said 34-year-old Bauri, who is a private tutor and lives with his family of eight in a two-room ECL quarter they had captured.
“The environmental hazards,” wrote Dr Goswami in another paper published in 2013, “are dangerous for the mining community as they aggravate the problem of ill-health.”
“A large section of the population in and around the coal mining area in Damodar Basin suffers from chronic water borne diseases. Miners develop intestinal parasitic infection, anemia, skin diseases, tuberculosis; they also succumb to diarrhea, weight loss and are subjected to respiratory infection.”
“People suffered from respiratory diseases as a result of air pollution in both areas. Besides the above mentioned two types of diseases, it was observed that due to nutritional deficiencies anemia, skin diseases were commonly found among the mining population,” he added.
A Masterplan Lying Idle Since 2009
Following the directions of the Supreme Court, a masterplan was approved by the government of India in 2009 for rehabilitation of more than 180,000 people in the RCF area, involving an outlay of Rs 2,661.73 crore.
ECL was entrusted with the task of identifying “subsidence-prone” and “vulnerable” areas and carrying out rehabilitation works in areas belonging to ECL or BCCL, while Asansol Durgapur Development Authority (ADDA) was given the responsibility in non-BCCL/ECL areas.
However, 13 years later, the people of Harishpur, Porascole, Majhipara and several other towns and villages in Andal CD block view the masterplan as a ‘kaaguje baagh’, a paper tiger. “If it had any presence in the real world, do you think we would continue living here after witnessing houses falling like a pack of cards?” said Chowdhury in Harishpur, where all households were given identification cards by ADDA after the town was recognised as subsidence-prone. “ADDA has done nothing for us.”
They were entitled for rehabilitation and resettlement at a safer place but were struck by tragedy in the two subsidence incidents on 14 and 20 July 2020. Subsequently, the people of Harishpur formed a village committee and began their quest for a safer life.
After failing to get any assurance from ECL or ADDA regarding rehabilitation, they knocked on the doors of the block development officer, the district magistrate (DM), the governor of West Bengal and the office of the state chief minister.
Nothing materialised until April 2022 when ECL finally agreed to rehabilitate the residents of Harishpur.
SK Chowdhury, general manager, ECL-Kajora Area, told Article 14 that the process of rehabilitation for Harishpur had been initiated with a drone survey. “People would be resettled to a safer place. They will receive monetary compensation in lieu of lands and houses,” he said. “A government job will also be given to one member of every family giving two or more acres of land.”
Similar Suffering, Different Outcome
People of neighbouring Majhipara village and Porascole town were not fortunate enough as ECL is yet to declare any rehabilitation package for them. Even though people of Porascole vowed to continue their struggle, they alleged lack of coordination between ECL and ADDA and sloppy work by officials of both the public sector companies for their uncertain situation.
SK Chowdhury said there would be a “mega-project of open cast and underground mines” in Porascole and Jambad, expected to be announced in 2023. A rehabilitation programme for people there would be planned then, he said.
For Majhipara, the ECL claimed tribal residents did not have proper land records. He alleged that across the coal belt, “many people encroach on lands owned by Coal India Limited” to obtain rehabilitation benefits. Since Majhipara falls in territory belonging to the central government-owned company, ADDA would also not be able to provide rehabilitation to the indigenous citizens, he said.
Under the masterplan, 33,196 dwelling units were to be built in 10 years on 896.29 hectares of land for resettling people from subsidence-prone areas.
Even though it’s not clear how many houses have been constructed, a 2019 news report said ECL allowed building of 13,000 dwelling units on only 172 acres of land out of 400 acres of non-BCCL/ECL area identified by ADDA.
ADDA’s land use and development control plan for Andal, Pandabeswar, Durgapur Faridpur and Kansa CD blocks said that ECL and Central Mine Planning and Design Institute (CMPDI), a subsidiary of CIL that provides consultancy and services in the field of environmental engineering, had not identified any proposed new area for future mining in Andal and Pandabeswar blocks.
ECL’s Kajora area GM refuted the claim, saying ADDA had been informed on multiple occasions about areas that have underground coal reserves, where mining may take place in the future.
“It’s not just about coal,” he said. “Entire Asansol has coal beneath it, but we cannot dig holes in the middle of that city.”
According to him, ADDA has in some cases identified areas for resettlement that had already been proposed for mining. These were areas with coal reserves within 600 metres of the surface. “As per Coal India guidelines we cannot allow any new construction there. So, we informed ADDA about the same,” he added.
“Harishpur and Porascole are not same even when both the regions have suffered similarly. No two towns or villages are the same here,” said Jayanta Ray, a local activist associated with the Communist Party Of India (Marxist), in Porascole. “One or two incidents of subsidence happen every day somewhere in the coal belt,” he said. “But the people of which area will be rehabilitated first depends on how much coal the area has, how fast ADDA and ECL sort out their paperwork and decide to begin mining.”
The rehabilitation is also “only about coal”, he said.
(Niladry Sarkar is an independent journalist based from West Bengal. His interests are climate change, environment, human rights, development, caste, culture and politics in suburban and rural West Bengal.)