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That Sinking Feeling

The possibility of subsidence due to unfilled mines threatens vital communication lines

That Sinking Feeling
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553

IT is something the eastern states have ignored for decades. But now, the moment of reckoning seems to have arrived. The threat has assumed alarming proportions and could eventually lead to a major disaster. Illegal mining, continuing for years in the West Bengal- Bihar border region, is now threatening major portions of National Highway 2 (better known as the Grand Trunk Road) and mainline railway tracks on which ply a large number of local trains and critical national ones like the Howrah and Bhubaneshwar Rajdhani Expresses, the Delhi- Howrah Poorva Express and the Kalka Mail, indeed nearly every express or mail train that connects Delhi and Calcutta.

A detailed report prepared by the Dhanbad- based Directorate General of Mine Safety ( DGMS ) says rampant illegal mining in the region in pits abandoned by two Coal India Ltd ( CIL ) subsidiaries— Bharat Coking Coal Ltd ( BCCL ) and Eastern Coalfields Ltd ( ECL )— have led to at least 22 villages and a few industrial towns, with an estimated combined population of a million, “practically dangling on an empty pit”.

The problem: illegal miners— some claim even legitimate coal companies— have burrowed through the earth under the Grand Trunk Road and the railway tracks to hunt for coal. And when they abandon these mines, they don’t fill up the trenches with sand or earth, as is the rule. The result: in many parts here, people are living on a thin strip of earth under which yawns the empty caverns of abandoned mines. The earth could cave in any moment.

Says the DGMS report: “Many of these abandoned mines are under the Grand Trunk Road and the main line of Eastern Railway. The Rajdhani, Poorva, Kalka and Shatabdi pass through the line, some of which is above semi- vacuum area. Even the Standing Committee on Railways in Parliament had expressed deep concern over this in its 11th report.” P. L. Munshi, technical secretary to the CMD , BCCL , told Outlook that there are 13 or 14 pits close to the Grand Trunk Road which could cause irreparable damage to the highway and adjacent railway lines.

 “This is serious and needs to be looked into immediately,” says Haradhan Roy, former MP from Asansol and also member of the Standing Committee on Coal. Roy, who worked closely with the DGMS , recently wrote a detailed report to West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu and BCCL and ECL authorities, highlighting the gravity of the situation. Adds Sanat Kumar Chattaraj, a former senior manager with CIL : “There are hugecraters of boiling gases which the coal companies have not bothered to fill in time. So, there remains this risk of subsidence.”

Railway ministry officials are, expectedly, aghast at the continued negligence of the coal ministry. “We’ve had some isolated cases where areas lose to railway tracks were damaged. But these were far from the trunk lines. Still, it can be a serious problem if not tackled in time,” says Indra Ghosh, executive director (safety), Railway Board. Agrees N. C. Bindlash, additional member (civil engineering), Railway Board: “Barring one case, the railways have never had a serious cases of track damage from subsidence due to illegal mining but this is serious and needs to be looked into immediately.”

An official spokesperson of the railways said two earlier incidents of damage close to the tracks in the region were noted near the Kalipahari and Thaparnagar stations in West Bengal. “Now, we have permanent guards there who keep regular checks on visible cracks on the earth, if any, or cases of underground fire close to the tracks,” the spokesperson said, adding that Eastern Railway officials in Dhanbad and Asansol were in constant touch with all collieries and holding regular meetings on the issue. Observers say the only time the railways have got into serious trouble over subsidence was a few years ago in Jodhpur district in Rajasthan when the authorities abandoned a 40- km track between Makrana and Parvatsar after private operators continued with open- cast mining very close to the tracks for a special variety of marble.

"We're handling this issue on a war footing. Our first priority is the railways. There is a joint meeting planned with DGMS to look into areas where illegal mining is going on. Eastern Railway officials are also expected to attend. We're taking all steps possible to avert any danger," Munshi says. "Necessary equipment has been sent to the sites with adequate police reinforcements and we hope the damage will be rectified before it assumes alarming proportions," says he. CIL officials declined comments. In a recent report, the Railway Safety Review Committee, headed by former Supreme Court judge H. R. Khanna, focused on a comprehensive safety plan for railway tracks and spelt out possibilities for investment in the region. According to the panel, 25 per cent of the tracks nationwide have been classified as unfit for use. Ironically, 30 per cent of these tracks are in the states of West Bengal and Bihar.

COAL ministry sources told Outlook that the DGMS had identified a number of local police stations of Dhanbad and Asansol which were allowing the coal mafia to illegally mine in abandoned pits at Egara, Baraboni, Barakar, Rupnarayanpur, Kulti, Bansara, Nimcha, Siasrole, J. K. Nagar and Ronai areas in the region. Strangely, officials of BCCL and ECL —which have filled some of the pits at Sirpur, Sodepur, Kajora, Selampur and Mugma areas— have told the West Bengal government and the coal ministry that they do not have sufficient funds to fill the large number of abandoned pits and need funds, either from the ministry or the state government. Recently, Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee raised the issue with the PMO and sought funds. The comprehensive rehabilitation package is estimated at a huge Rs 15,000 crore.

Sources say illegal mining has flourished in the subdivision in the last few months. Last fortnight, one person was killed and several injured when the roof collapsed in an illegal colliery at Bansra in Ranigunj. Citing an example, a senior DGMS official, speaking on conditions of anonymity, told Outlook that illegal mining by the local coal mafia and reckless, unscientific excavation by BCCL have exposed an estimated 5,000 villagers of Borira to grave risks. The area has already been declared "dangerous" by A. Wahid, deputy director- general of DGMS . Wahid has also asked the state government to immediately evacuate the villagers. Huge cracks have appeared on the Kulti- Borira road to the village. As a result, ambulances and fire- fighting vehicles cannot reach the village where more than 25 acres of land have caved in and at least 32 houses destroyed. "A mine abandoned since '60 created a vacuum underground. This was aggravated by regular explosions in the nearby collieries of BCCL . Anytime it could lead to subsidence," the official said.

The crude irony of the situation is that coal is mined illegally by those people whose very villages are at the risk of caving in. For this suicidal labour, they get a pittance of Rs 80 per bag from the mafia.

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