With a halt on illegal mining since the elections were announced, miners who work in hundreds of these high-risk narrow pits to dig out coal for a living have been jobless and say they will opt for NOTA when they go to vote on Monday as a mark of protest. Mining, both legal and illegal, is common in the Ranigunj-Asansol coal belt in West Bengal and in many cases, the coal mafia engage poor people in illegal work for a low wage.
But since the notification of elections and seizures taking place to curb illegal election funding, coal mafia operating in the areas have stopped operations throwing more than hundreds of these miners commonly known as “rat-hole miners” out of livelihood.
The story is more or less same in more than 3,500 illegal coal pits operating in the area which have either closed down due to excessive vigil or have slowed down the operations.
The out-of-job miners have decided to opt for NOTA as a mark of protest.
Sitting MP Babul Supriyo is pitted against Moon Moon Sen of the TMC in the Monday’s elections for the Asansol Lok Sabha seat.
According to officials of Eastern Coalfields Ltd (ECL), illegal mining is currently under check and has slowed down in the election season.
“Whenever we get any information, we are taking action,” an ECL official told PTI.
According to sources, in about 3,500 illegal coal mines in Asansol-Raniganj area, at least 35,000 people are directly employed, while another 40,000 get indirect employment.
“After a hard day of work, we get Rs 80-100. We just manage two squares of meal a day. We don’t want our children to engage in illegal mining. This is the only reliable source of income in the area as we neither have agricultural land nor any proper industry. The government should ensure proper employment for us and education for our children,” says miner Ashis Sardar (name changed), who is in his late forties.
Ranibala Munda, another miner, says that in the past few elections due to increased vigil, the coal mafia calls off operations for two-three months leading to serious levels of unemployment in the region.
“The government and the political parties are not bothered about us. But when the elections come, they will ensure these mines are closed down. What will we eat? How will we run our family? My entire family will opt for NOTA this time,” says Munda.
Munda’s view was echoed by local contractor Raju (name changed), who manages the miners.
“In election season, political parties make big promises but don’t fulfil them. We feel that this job should be legalised so that we get benefits and our children don’t get into this business. We want education for our children, proper health facilities and a decent job to run our families. But our views have always been falling into deaf ears. So we would go for NOTA,” he says.
Most of the miners who are thrown out of jobs claim they have been asked by various political parties to work for them in the poll season.
According to sources, illegal coal mining, which has a daily turnover running into crores is considered to be “parallel economy in the industrial town belt of Asansol and its surrounding areas”.
Even as the illegal business continues to yield high profit, the benefits are hardly passed on to the miners who risk their lives to keep the business running.
Besides digging up plots, those engaged in illegal mining extract coal from mines abandoned by ECL. The coal extracted from these illegal mines sells for Rs 300-400 a tonne, whereas the miners get around Rs 80-100 after 12 hours of laborious work.
Illegal mining is said to be rampant in Barabani, Jamuria, Raniganj and Pandaveswar - which falls under Asansol. The large stretch of the Ranigunj-Asansol coal belt is in the control of coal mafia.
In last few years, there have been incidents of miners getting trapped in these mines and being killed.
A trade union leader, who did not wish to be named fearing backlash from the coal mafia syndicate, says if a miner is a local he is given Rs 1 lakh as compensation and if he is a tribal from a nearby state his family is given Rs 50,000.
“No one dares to question them or raise their voice or else they will be killed,” he says.
The BJP alleges that the ruling TMC is in collusion with coal mafia.
“Everybody knows that the TMC and the local administration are in collusion with the coal mafia. It may have slowed down now but it will again gain momentum once the election is over,” Supriyo says.
His views are also shared by former CPI (M) MP Bansagopal Chowdhury who says the money from pilfered coal runs is being used to oil TMC’s election machinery.
Senior TMC minister and local MLA Moloy Ghatak terms these allegations baseless and politically motivated and denies the TMC’s involvement in any illegal mining.