Assam's Margherita seeks a just transition from coal

Margherita (Assam), July 14 (IANS/ 101Reporters) Clutching her dreams, G Swaramma (60) moved to Assam's Margherita as a young bride around 45 years ago. An Andhra Pradesh native, she now regrets her marriage to a worker in Namdang colliery. She had to work at home and outside. Her husband would often fall sick working underground and she would then go in his stead. Compounding her woes, her husband died within a decade of marriage, leaving her with two children to raise.

"Work in the mine causes extreme health hazards that one cannot recover from. There is no life here. My son lost his contract work after Borgolai colliery stopped operations. Since then, I have been taking up multiple jobs. In the mornings, my daughter and I collect and sell coal pieces to agents. In the evenings, I sell fish that I catch from small ponds here," said Swaramma. 

The permanent workers in the North Eastern Coalfields (NEC), a Coal India Limited (CIL) venture, were transferred to other locations or posted in various positions in Margherita itself when the mine closed, but the workers on contract had nowhere to go. They were not given enough time to move out or prepare for their future. 

Swaramma's family broke into the accommodation provided by the CIL four times after they were locked out for not vacating. "We were left to suffer without any alternative employment. When the colliery shut, we were sent out of our home," said Swaramma, wondering why an industry other than coal cannot be established in Margherita. 

The effect of colliery closure is evident on the business establishments in Ledo Bazaar Colony, known as Kumartuli (idol makers' colony). Most of the idols displayed in stores here are cancelled orders from over five years. Sudhir Pal (74) recalled the days when his father and grandfather used to travel from West Bengal to sculpt idols during Durga Puja, Kali Puja and Vishwakarma Puja. Later, they settled down in Margherita.

"We used to have customers from Dibrugarh, Tinsukia, Margherita, and parts of Arunachal Pradesh such as Kharsang, Hasseng and Kongsa. Never in our dreams did we imagine a life without the coal industry here," said Sudhir, the eldest of six brothers.  

"When coal mines were in full swing, we were not sitting idle like this. At present, the future looks bleak," said Narayan Pal (64), one of the Pal brothers who came up with the idea of crafting clay models, decorative items, and sculptures of popular personalities such as Bhupen Hazarika, which would be of interest to hotels, NEC office, Coal Heritage Park and Museum in Margherita and other parks in Tinsukia and Dibrugarh.

"Orders are not regular. We want to learn to sell online." he added. There are times when Pal brothers thought of shutting down their pottery unit. They unsuccessfully tried a grocery store a year ago. None of their children is interested in the traditional occupation. Most of them, including those who did mining courses, are jobless.

Mantosh Taye, Engineer Assistant (Civil), NEC Margherita, and general secretary of Assam Coal Mines Mazdoor Union (affiliated to the Indian National Trade Union Congress), told 101Reporters that the NEC has been neglected for years. "The company is in dire need of help from the government and CIL. Both Tirap and Tikak mines have east and west phases. Only Tikak East with a production 0.20 Million Tonne Per Annum (MTPA) is open now. How can an industry survive with such production," asked Taye. 

He recounted how residents suffered when the plywood industry in Margherita crashed in 1996. "Back then, at least coal mines were present as another industry for people to fall back on. But if coal mines are shut forever, we all fear Margherita's name will be erased from history," he added.

No proper closure

The way projects were wound up has been a matter of worry for coal mine staff as well. Tirap colliery is non-functional for the last three years, but its senior manager BB Sahu is loaded with work. 

At 7 a.m. every day, he and his team would take note of the tasks at hand - fixing electrical problems, water leakage, water connection to the colonies in the hillocks where former contract workers still live, pumping out mine water and road maintenance among others. The survey department regularly watches out for encroachments on colliery land. 

"The colonies lay scattered on the hillock as they were built in a haphazard manner when the colliery came into existence. They are in a bad shape," Sahu told 101Reporters, giving an insight into the volume of work.

"In the office, we have so many queries to respond to - Right To Information responses, Parliament questions, daily reports on rainfall and temperature, updating details of attendance, manpower and total expenditure, besides law book maintenance. All these have to be done manually," said Sahu, who spent 16 years in Tirap unit out of his total 31 years of colliery employment.

He claimed to have sent many letters to the Union Ministry of Mines, Assam government, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and the CIL to find a way to make the mine operational again. “All organisations and government bodies need to understand the complex issue of livelihood loss,” Sahu emphasised.

Sanjib Baruah, an NEC mechanical foreman and working president at Rashtriya Coal Mazdoor Union (RCMU) affiliated with the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, told 101Reporters that they were worried about the locals engaged by coal mafias. 

"Coal mafias have no understanding of the geographical conditions of the hills. They do not care if the place is landslide-prone, they just want coal from anywhere. This is why innocent people die during illegal mining. If mines in Margherita shut down forever, these mafias will grow, and we will see more such deaths," Baruah cautioned.

Multiple emails and calls to the CIL and NEC officials remained unanswered.

Needed, a solid action plan

What Margherita needs today is a comprehensive plan for transition from coal mining. Pallav Shyam Wailung, general secretary and spokesperson, Tirap Autonomous District Council Demand Committee, has been proposing various alternative livelihood options ever since the trouble with the coal industry in Assam began.

"We have had several meetings with NEC General Manager S P Dutta. He keeps saying that things are not in his hands and that only big organisations and non-profits can take the matter forward. Rice and betel nuts are cultivated in the hills. We are discussing with farmers and former coal workers to introduce vanilla cultivation. Dealing with forest produce, spices and medicinal herbs will not only offer lasting income but also benefit ecosystem," Wailung reasoned. 

He said these ideas were proposed to the state agriculture and horticulture department. "In the public hearing held on July 6 to obtain environmental clearance for the opencast project in Tirap, I requested the authorities to put an end to unscientific and illegal mining in Margherita," he added. 

Swapan Rai, the general secretary of the RCMU's Margherita unit, retired as a senior clerk from the NEC in 2018. His father and forefathers were all employed with the NEC. Rai blamed the government policies that he believed had failed to solve the issues in Margherita's coal mines.

"Nobody is thinking of energy transition here. It will happen only if the government and policymakers work together to bring a solid plan. People here are extremely poor, and coal has been their only earning source. On the other hand, states like Gujarat are flourishing and moving towards solar energy."

So far, the government has not taken any step that could ultimately lead to a just transition. The NEC general manager was not available to comment on the fate of collieries, whether they will die a slow death. 

Meanwhile, Milan Biswas, another retired NEC senior clerk and RCMU vice president, said a report of the Central Mine Planning and Design Institute Limited suggested that Lekhapani mines have over 60 years of coal reserves. "If not made a part of the reserve forests of Lekhapani range, these mines would have saved the NEC from making losses today. After staging multiple protests at the CIL office in Kolkata, we have only been assured that Tirap will be opened soon. However, we have not received a permanent solution to this crisis yet," said Biswas.

Advocate Mrinmoy Khataniar, who has been fighting an illegal mining case in the Guwahati High Court, told 101Reporters that the government should prepare a solid plan to address the livelihood concerns, in case mines are fully shut. "Perhaps bring tourism for a safe and healthy transition from the dirty energy," he suggested.