At first glance, the mud hut of Saraswati Bauri, 55, in the remote Kadamdanga village of West Bengal’s Birbhum district seems almost deserted. Large cracks have appeared on the walls of the hut due to the lack of maintenance. Leave alone the maintenance of the house, she has to struggle every day to meet the basic needs of the five-member family.
The fortunes of the family changed when she lost her son and son-in-law, the bread-earners of her family, in an illegal coal mine collapse in Kalikapur village of the neighbouring Bankura district on January 11, 2017. There is no trace of the two ever since.
Her son, Abhijit Bauri, 17, and son-in-law, Garib Bauri, set out for Kalikapur in the first week of January 2017. After a few days, she was told about the illegal coal mine collapse that buried nine people from the village, including Abhijit and Garib. “Soon after getting the news, several people from our village headed for Kalikapur on motorcycles. After a frantic search for several hours, they gave up and informed us that all hope is lost,” Saraswati told DH. Seven other families also lost their sole bread earners in the incident.
Kadamdanga village in the Khoyrasol block of Birbhum has fewer employment opportunities. The lack of water sources makes it impossible for villagers to earn their livelihood through agriculture, forcing these villagers to work in illegal coal mines.
“Even if people here got a daily wage of Rs 200, nobody would have risked their lives by working in illegal coal mines,” said another villager.
The brutality of the coal mafia came to the fore in the account of Raidhoni Bauri, 30, who lives close to Saraswati’s house. Struggling to hold back her tears, Raidhoni said, the coal mafia stopped all rescue work by villagers fearing that the incident will attract media attention if the bodies of the nine workers were recovered.
No clues left
“The villagers were told that the JCB operators will not dig up the dead bodies as the work will stop for a couple of days due to a religious festival,” said Raidhoni. She lost her husband, Sattya Bauri, who was working in such mines for the last four years, in the Kalikapur mine collapse. Now she has to take care of their four children and she feels that she can’t afford to continue their education.
Contradictory versions came up from the villagers regarding the ‘compensation’ provided by the coal mafia to the families of the deceased.
While some local Trinamool Congress (TMC) workers claimed that an amount of Rs 2.5 lakh was given to each of the affected families, some villagers said that the amount was much less.
“ They [the coal mafia] told us that my husband, Dipak Mondal, cannot be brought back anymore. They said it would be better I accept whatever they are offering me as compensation,” said Tumpa Mondal, another resident of the village.
According to some villagers who spoke under conditions of anonymity, a meeting was held in the village by local TMC leadership soon after the news of the deaths reached.
“In the meeting, the local politicians asked the affected families whether they agree a compensation of Rs 2.5 lakh and all of them agreed,” said a resident of Kadamdanga.
According to local activists, the coal mafia
rarely hires local people for extracting coals from such unsafe mines fearing public outrage in case of fatal accidents. They said that in the case of the coal mine in Kalikapur village of Bankura which collapsed in 2017 most of the workers were from Birbhum.
Sometimes there are exceptions. “If the mine is freshly dug, the coal mafia hires locals as the risk is low. But as the mine gets older and weaker, the locals are replaced with workers from other districts,” said an activist from Bankura.
However, amidst all the opinions, one question raised by the affected families remains unanswered. “How will we survive without any income?”