In January 2018, allegations swung in the way of the BJP-led government in Assam by the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) for inaction against ‘coal syndicate’ for illegal mining. The allegations specifically pointed out Bhaskar Sharma, who is a Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) MLA from Margherita in Upper Assam. The Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) filed a Right to Information (RTI) application to enquire about the permissible number of trucks for transportation of coals daily to the coalfields of Margherita. In a reply received by the concerned authority, it was brought to the notice of the workers of KMSS that the permission given by Coal India Limited is only for 10 trucks. However, the senior adviser of KMSS has disclosed that they witness around 150-200 coal bearing trucks going out of the fields of Margherita, Assam on a daily basis. Moreover, the RTI reply also stated that each truck is permitted to carry a maximum of 10 tonnes of coal, but it has been seen in the area that every truck is overloaded with approximately 20 to 25 tonnes of coal. The KMSS adviser Gogoi suspected that there is an ongoing illegal coal business which ranges between Rs. 1 crore to Rs. 3 crore on a daily basis. Going by the estimate, the illegal trade of coal on a yearly basis has the potential to bear Rs.2, 000 crore. Bhaskar Sharma is said to be carrying out the illegitimate business of trade of coal with the help of local police officers. As evidence, KMSS produced an inquiry report prepared by the Central Investigation Department (CID) which was forwarded to the Ministry of Home Affairs. Gogoi has alleged that the report clearly names the involvement of police and ‘a local politician’ and some other officials of the tender-holder Coal India Limited. The report further reveals that as against 10 to 15 trucks which is the permissible limit, the report discloses operating 70 to 75 trucks on a daily basis. The inaction by the state government is for the sole reason because a main MLA of the BJP party, Bhaskar Sharma is involved in the illegal trading and coal mining.
BJP denied any involvement in the scam
In retaliation to the allegations put by KMSS, Sharma completely denied any involvement whatsoever and gave a statement that he is not associated in the alleged coal scam. He instead pointed that the BJP government is only two years old in the state of Assam and is not new in Margherita and therefore many licenses were given by the previous government in power. He did acknowledge receiving contracts for transportation and supply of labourers for mining by the tender-holder Coal India Ltd.
The recent development in the case suggests that the allegations on the state government in Assam have escalated to an extent that it might as well implicate the present Chief Minister of Assam Sarbananda Sonowal. The allegation is based on incriminating photos distributed to journalists in September this year. The photographs reveal that in the photo Sonowal is seen to be interacting with one Sunil Kumar Gurung, who is alleged to be involved the said illegal mining operations across the state. The name of Gurung came up as a suspect when a confidential letter was written by the Director of the state Geology and Mining Directorate to the Tinsukia District Deputy Commissioner flagging the problem of illegal coal mining in the area. The Tinsukia District is known for having the most treasured coal reserves in the state of Assam, located on the eastern trench of the state. In the Tinsukia region, the mining rights have been exclusively granted to The North Eastern Coal Fields. The region is also known to be full of rick rainforests, the district is covered with a total of 17 reserved forests. Congress in its allegation of implicating the Chief Minister himself has made a statement to saw that inside these forests, new extractions sites have been built which has not been notified by coal fields. They owe these development in illegal mining by the BJP government as it is on a rise since they assumed power in the state since 2016.
Does it date back to Congress rule in Assam?
At the time of congress holding power in the state, the MP in the coal-rich area (Margherita constituency in Tinsukia District), Pradyut Bordoloi has made a statement deposing that supposedly units were set up to produce coke from raw coal was sold by Coal India via the e-auction process and have sprung up inside the reserved forests of Tinsukia. The importance of Coke in industrial production is that it has a lot of uses like it can be used as a fuel which can be obtained by heating coal without oxygen. Coal is procured through centralised online agencies by Coke-manufacturing units. Bordoli in his statement said that these coke-units have been fortified by 15 feet high walls and they operate at the pivotal system of the coal mining operation, where workers in huge numbers are digging coal through the technique of rat-hole. The technique of rat hole mining necessitates digging of vertical pits, small but able to reach the mineral. The allegations were based on a series of sting videos which reveals that there are dozens of trucks which are going to and fro, to produce raw coal from these coke producing units. At an approximate, as per the allegation, some 600 trucks operate on a daily basis bearing fake challans. These units have also resulted in massive deforestation leading to devastation and displacement.
Petition by the National Green Tribunal
In 2018, the National Green Tribunal filed a petition through an environmental activist, R. Sreedhar further alleging that there has been a rise in the proliferation of the mining areas. The petition alleges that the daily basis amount of extraction is about 600 tonnes procured by both rat-hole as well as surface mining procedures. They prove the existing nexus between illegal coal mining and coke oven plan operators.
The involvement of the district administration in illegal mining has been alleged by Bordoli. He claims that they are ‘hand-in-glove’ with the smugglers patronised by the BJP leaders. He proceeds his allegations further to state that these rat-hole mines are resulting in routine deaths of the workers, which go unreported in the media due to the influence of the party in power. Exploitation at such a massive level occurs only because of the support of the top level of government, controlled by the chief minister’s office.
Are the efforts to curb enough?
In retaliation to the allegations put on the BJP government, it has dismissed any such claim putting the onus on the rule of Congress which was preceded by the BJP rule. Assam Government spokesperson Chandra Mohan Patowary has rather claimed that they have constantly been trying to stop these illegitimate mining. Pabitra Margherita, state BJP spokesperson, also came to the defence of his party’s government. A legacy of the Congress regime, “coal syndicates” were a thing of the past, he insisted, citing “data”. BJP has disclosed their initiatives saying that they have seized over 9,500 tonnes of illegally transported coal arresting over 500 people seizing 300 vehicles and registering multiple FIRs.
Guwahati High Court in an order noted that the seizing of the mining materials is not a real solution to address the persisting issue of illegal mining. The court while deciding on a public interest litigation (PIL) on the matter said that:
“The action that was required was to prevent the illegal mining and protect the environment and not to take subsequent action after permitting such illegal mining,”
Following the said observation made by the court, the Directorate of Geology and Mining addressed letters to the civil and police administration of Tinsukia alleging ‘large scale theft’ by illegal coal mining in the area. The difficulty faced by the concerned district police officials is that the area is a border district and thus other cropping issues like that of insurgency. Therefore, in the area lodging of FIRs and seizing of trucks involved in illegal coal mining do not suffice.