While the focus of illegal coal mining seems to be on Meghalaya following the disappearance of 15 miners who crawled inside a rat-hole mine, the illicit activity has been continuing on a much larger scale at a remote corner of Assam for the past several years.
Every evening, trucks loaded with coal are seen moving out of Ledo-Margherita to different destinations in the Northeast and beyond the region to other states. The spot is located about 600 km east of Guwahati along the border of Arunachal Pradesh.
A report compiled by Assam Police last year identified Ledo, Lekhapani, Tirap and Tipong at Margherita Circle of Tinsukia district as being impacted by the racket.> It added that the illegal transportation of coal was being facilitated with support from the police, local politicians and officials of Coal India Ltd. The report was forwarded by the police to the state home department.
Extraction of coal in Ledo-Margherita is done along the foothills of the Namdang hills using a range of techniques. Locals from the neighbouring villages and migrant daily labourers dig out coal with sharp tools which are carried in gunny bags and deposited at specific locations. Coal is also extracted through rat-holes similar to the practice adopted at the mines in East Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya. Of late, excavators have also been spotted around the mines believed to have been deployed by the mafia for faster extraction of coal.
Collieries in Ledo-Margherita began to be set up from 1885 and were placed under the administrative control of the Assam Railways and Trading Company. According to a government official, the extraction and supply of coal from the mines have increased in the last three months due to increased demand.
"This explains why excavators are now being used in the mines. The chances of these equipment being confiscated are less since a large number of influential people are involved which also include a section in Guwahati," he said, adding that the activities in the region began at least three decades ago. "But the quantum of extracted coal was much less earlier and they were supplied to buyers within the state. Now, labourers come from far-off destinations to get engaged in these mines," said the official.
North Eastern Coalfield (NEC), which is a unit of Coal India Limited, has written several letters to the police and district administration suggesting measures to check the illicit activities. On some occasions, joint inspections were carried out in the mines which resulted in the closure of many rat-holes, unauthorised mines and apprehension of thieves.
Last year, a petition submitted by R Sreedhar before the National Green Tribunal alleged that there had been a proliferation of illegal mining activities in the Ledo-Margherita region. It said that about 600 tonnes of coal were being extracted everyday through the rat-holes and surface mining which were facilitated by a nexus of "coal mining operators and the operators of coke oven plants." The petition raised an alarm over the environmental degradation in the region due to the mining activities.
The tribunal had directed the Assam Pollution Control Board and the deputy commissioners of Tinsukia and Tirap (Arunachal Pradesh) to inspect and initiate "immediate action" if illegal mining was being carried out in the region.