“You think anything will ever grow here again?” – asked Tapas Mondal (name changed to protect identity) while he stood beside a stream gushing with fresh water with hills and hillocks around him. The little streams of water emerged from within crevices of these hills and flowed through the valleys, joining forces with other streams to form the river that lay a little distance away from us. But Mondal’s question leaves one with thoughts because there wasn’t a single tree around as he stood inside the Sonpur Bazari opencast pit – the largest open-cast coal mine in India’s oldest coalfield area, Raniganj Coalfields, spread over West Bengal and parts of Jharkhand.
Everything around, even the men and machinery, were coloured black due to coal dust.
Mondal – a supervising engineer in the Sonpur Bazari open-cast mine, named after the Sonpur Bazari village it evicted – posed this question when asked by Mongabay-India if trees would grow back when the mine was backfilled after extracting all the coal, as per the coal ministry’s environment-friendly policy adopted in 2012.
“When I was a kid (in the 1980s),” he continued without waiting for an answer to his question, “there were lush forests all around us, and we would often spend hours picking fruits and berries. The coal mine was underground then, and my father used to work there. The forests started vanishing once Sonpur Bazari became an open-cast mine – thousands of trees were uprooted to make way for it. After backfilling, only the grasses and shrubs will grow back, not a forest – this I know very well.”
Sonpur Bazari is one of the numerous open-cast mines in the Raniganj Coalfields area that came up in the late 1980s and 1990s, coinciding with India liberalising its economy. Like Mondal, several residents of the area – including Asansol, West Bengal’s second-largest city after Kolkata – referred to the vanishing forests when speaking about the long-term impact of mining on the environment.
“In fact, you can rarely spot the Asan tree, from which Asansol draws its name, in the area these days. This was not so even till the early 1980s when you saw them in abundance in areas outside the city. Things started changing rapidly when opencast mines came in and prised open the earth from these parts. Entire forests and villages were uprooted to extract coal,” Jaya Mitra, an Asansol-based environmentalist and author, told Mongabay-India.
But references to vanishing forests are best understood by referring to the past when Asansol was part of a forested, riverine ecosystem, inhabited by indigenous groups. Coal, and development and its pitfalls, came much later.
What was life in Raniganj coalfields before coal mining?
Santimoy Bandopadhyay, a retired high school history teacher (of Asansol) and author, provides a vivid picture of life in ancient times in his book Asansoler Praikrama (Circumambulation of Asansol). The entire area stretching from Dhanbad district in Jharkhand to Birbhum district in West Bengal, he notes, was covered in thick forests, crisscrossed by rivers and rivulets, and inhabited by indigenous groups.
Although local kings ruled over patches of this belt, they did not undertake projects that altered the natural environment in a big way, not even during the Mughal period.
“Historical records show that in the sixteenth century, Jahangir and his armies halted in Asansol during their transit from Delhi to Bardhhaman to collect taxes, as it was on the banks of Damodar river. But even then, barring small settlements and temples, there wasn’t much change in the natural settings,” said Debabrata Ghosh, a veteran journalist with Bengali daily Aajkal who lives in Asansol and has travelled across Raniganj Coalfields over the past four decades.
Industries and urbanisation changed everything
Raniganj Coalfields entered the records as the birthplace of mining and exploration in India in 1774 when John Sumner and Suetonius Grant Heatly of the East India Company commenced commercial exploitation along the Western bank of Damodar River. A host of companies, including Carr & Tagore – the first Indian company in the commercial mining sector – established underground pits here in subsequent decades, extracting large quantities of coal without causing much damage to the topography.
Even then, industries like steel, chemical, and power manufacturing that were established to take advantage of the abundant availability of coal spurred large-scale urbanisation.
The evidence of the impact of these activities is in the maps of the area. Older maps showed a large network of interconnected perennial and seasonal streams that flowed into the Ajay and Damodar rivers on the northern and southern flanks of Raniganj Coalfields. But as mining and industries expanded, especially in the post-independence decades, the network shrank drastically, such that today’s maps only show the Ajay and Damodar.
Mitra underlined the role of real estate lobbies in killing off rivers. “Real estate lobbies, that function like mafias, have converted many real jungles into concrete in the past few decades. They have also encroached into perennial rivers like Ghorui and Nunia, building palatial homes and villas along their banks while reducing the rivers to drains,” she said.
Opencast mining turned it into a critically polluted area
Several studies, reports and data on pollution show that the ill effects of mining and allied activities in Raniganj Coalfields deepened since the 1990s following the operationalisation of several open-cast mines.
Both Asansol and Durgapur, the coalfield’s largest urban settlements, were categorised as ‘critically polluted’ by the Central Pollution Control Board and included among India’s most polluted cities on several occasions between 2009 and 2017.
Incidents of land subsidence due to abandoned/ illegal underground mines, which were limited to 1-2 per year in the 1970s and 80s, also spiked in subsequent decades. In 2020, for instance, there were three incidents of subsidence during the monsoons in which scores of people lost their homes and one person was killed.
“Most cave-ins happen during the monsoons because the ageing pillars supporting underground channels, from which coal was extracted earlier, give away due to waterlogging. The cave-ins are likely fallout of open-cast mining – after all, the explosives that we use to blast through layers of rocks and soil to reach coal reserves also shake up the earth all around,” Moloy Chatterjee, a labour supervisor in the Bhanora coal mine, explained to Mongabay-India.
A study based on the analysis of satellite images, meanwhile, noted that between 1993 and 2015, large-scale changes in land use and land cover were noticed in the Raniganj Coalfields area, concentrated around open-cast mines that came up in different parts at different points.
Forest cover shrank by nearly 50 percent, while many dense forests were gobbled up by open-cast mines. Whereas areas around mines witnessed a sharp spike in construction activity, more than doubling the area covered by concretised settlements.
The cumulative impact of such large-scale changes in the natural environment is reflected in rising temperatures – the study showed that surface temperatures increased by two to four degrees between 1993 and 2015, especially in areas with mining and construction activity.
Studies also cited interviews with medical practitioners in Asansol, during which they said that patients with respiratory ailments topped their charts. But the real burden of such ailments remained hidden as government hospitals and health centres did not collect data on chronic respiratory diseases, they pointed out.
Seeds of resistance
Notwithstanding the irreversible effects of open-cast mining on the environment and health, the Indian government amended mining laws amidst the pandemic, without properly consulting the mining-affected communities, to clear the decks for large-scale commercial extraction of coal and other minerals. The government also compiled a list of coal reserves across states and auctioned a number of such reserves in the late 2020s, paving the way for new, more expansive open-cast mines, including in Jharkhand, next door to Raniganj Coalfields.
Yet, the environment matters little in politics and governance in the area. Although BJP leader and Asansol’s Member of Parliament Babul Supriyo is in charge of the country’s environment ministry, neither he nor leaders of other parties talk of pollution and environmental degradation in their rallies and public meetings in the area.
“Some of us met Babul Supriyo after he became a member of parliament from our area in 2014, and urged him to restore the shrinking riverine ecosystem urgently if he genuinely wanted to work for the constituency and its people, as encroachments and obstructions in the natural course of Ghorui, Nunia and other rivers were causing floods. He promised to do something, and then forgot all about it,” rued Mitra.
In such circumstances, the local community – those affected most acutely by mining, including workers and their families living in coal-bearing areas – has been leading the struggle against further environmental degradation.
Trade unions with a presence in the coal sector, including independent groups like Thika Sramik Adhikar Union and those affiliated with political parties like Colliery Mazdoor Sabha of India and Khadan Thikadar Mazdoor Sabha, had been opposing open-cast mining for several years, but in separate programmes. They came together to form a joint action committee during the pandemic, in anticipation of the government’s mining law reforms.
“We have organised numerous protests against the reforms since then, including at colliery gates, inside mining pits and in cities like Asansol and Durgapur,” Sujit Bhattacharjee, president of the Khadan Thikadar Mazdoor Sabha, and a member of the committee, informed Mongabay-India.
“Participation in all programmes has been good, but at times, even we have been surprised with the numbers protests have drawn, particularly from workers, poor people and concerned citizens,” he said.
This story first appeared on Mongabay.