As you walk down this particular wide but cracked road in a West Bengal village, it is evident that something catastrophic has happened here. There are crumbling houses all around. But one house, in particular, will catch your eye. It is the house of Tapan Pal, a two-storey building that fell one night in July 2020. Its bricks are scattered around.
Walking further, you see something amiss about all the houses. Tiled roofs, cracked walls, broken windows, and most of them, abandoned. After all, who would want to stay inside these ticking time bombs?
This is Harishpur, a village in the Andal block of Paschim Burdwan district in India’s eastern state of West Bengal.
In July 2020, Eastern Coalfields Limited (ECL), a subsidiary of the centrally-owned Coal India Limited, allegedly conducted two illegal open-cast mining operations in Harishpur. The first was on July 14, 2020, and the second was on July 20, 2020. The local residents allege that ECL did not have the required permissions or environmental clearances to conduct mining operations in such proximity to a residential area. They say that ECL’s illegal mining has led to numerous incidents of land subsidence and underground fires.
The collapse of Tapan Pal’s home is a testimony to the land subsidence incidents (gradual sinking of land) that followed post mining. More than 25 houses tumbled due to the subsidence and over 1,000 families vacated and fled from Harishpur in July 2020. Coal mining no longer continues in Harishpur.
Harishpur is categorised as a census town, a settlement that has not been officially notified and governed as a town by statutes but exhibits urban characteristics due to its population size and other urban attributes. According to the 2011 Census, Harishpur had a total population of 8,980. But the regular land subsidence incidents and collapsing of homes have forced the residents to abandon their houses and migrate. “When the road sank almost five feet, we knew that a disaster was approaching us and we started to prepare for evacuation,” says 37-year-old Arijit Ghosh. Harishpur, now, has around 500 people left as many have migrated out of the village, mostly out of fear.
It has been three years since houses tumbled. Despite the passage of time, there has still been no activity from authorities regarding rehabilitation for those affected.
Asked about the situation in writing, Sanjay Kumar Dubey, the Chief of Public Relations at the Central Mine Planning and Design Institute (CMPDI), is yet to respond. Other ECL officials have refused to comment. The queries submitted to Dubey pertained to the status of the rehabilitation measures for those affected by land subsidence in Harishpur and whether the CMPDI had issued environmental clearance for the mining operations conducted by ECL in July 2020.
“We have come back and are now staying here because of the water in the mined patch. Water penetrated the entire patch during the 2021 floods. It is comparatively safer. If the water dries up, there will be fire again,” says Dipak Aturia, a 35-year-old resident of Harishpur.
No jobs, water or basic amenities
The Raniganj coalfield (RCF), the birthplace of coal mining in India, encompasses the entire Asansol-Durgapur region of West Bengal. RCF is India’s second-largest coal field, with 49.17 billion tonnes of coal reserves, spread across West Bengal and the neighbouring state of Jharkhand. Coal mining is a significant development activity in this industrial corridor and has served as a crucial pull factor for migrant workers.
However, according to 2021 research by MCRG, a Kolkata-based research organisation, coal mining development has resulted in land acquisition and displacement, occupational illnesses, a lack of a safe work environment and problems of housing and resettlement.
Moreover, land subsidence incidents, especially in the case of illegal mining, pose higher risks of hazards, such as the one in July 2020 in Harishpur. Among the environment damages and rehabilitation challenges, is one related to water availability. One well subsided and another went dry after July 2020. Pipelines broke down cutting off potable water supply. “We manage through borewells, but the groundwater has shifted. Very few borewells work. We have taps but no water,” Anju Choudhury, in her late fifties, says, in Bangla. “Nal hai magar paani nahi hai” repeats Aturia, in Hindi, reiterating that the village has taps but no water in them.
Aturia explains how the July 2020 accidents have resulted in unemployment in the area. A teashop on the main road, the main source of income for 45-year-old Dayamoy Choudhury, shut as the shack suffered critical damages and could collapse anytime. Other men who were the primary earners of their families also faced the loss of jobs. Diwakar Gop, 42, has been unemployed since his garage roof fell. Several vans from his garage were damaged.
“A four-wheeler and a well both submerged into the ground after the mining incident. We covered it with sand,” says Aturia. He further asserts that all the small businesses in the village, like grocery stores, a flour mill, tailor shops, etc., have been shut since 2020, impacting the livelihood of the locals.
An idle masterplan, petty politics and improbable rehabilitation
In 2009, the Government of India approved a master plan to rehabilitate more than 180,000 persons in the RCF region. A budget of over Rs. 2600 crores was assigned to it. As per the master plan, Eastern Coalfields Limited is responsible for identifying “subsidence-prone” and “vulnerable” regions. The coal producer is also tasked with executing rehabilitation in areas that fall under its purview and that of its subsidiary, Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL). The Asansol Durgapur Development Authority (ADDA) is entrusted with rehabilitating those in the areas that do not fall under ECL or BCCL purview.
Yet, 14 years since this master plan was approved, the grievances of those residing in West Bengal’s subsiding town remain the same.
As the residents of Harishpur awaited rehabilitation and resettlement, they were caught in the two back-to-back land subsidence events in July 2020 and the subsequent political blame game. “There has been no solution to our woes, despite several meetings. The state government says that they have not received money from the central government and the Asansol Durgapur Development Authority says they have not received any funds from the state,” says Dipak Aturia.
Aturia and Ghosh further recall that the ADDA authorities asked them to live in tents for six months after the subsidence, saying they would rehabilitate them afterward. But nothing happened. They were promised plots and houses but were offered abandoned ECL quarters instead. Lalu Gop, a 36-year-old resident, remarks that those quarters are not liveable. “It is only a 10×10 feet room,” says Gop.
Aturia, meanwhile, points towards a house and mentions how it was the first to be affected after the July 2020 incident. The house belongs to Utpal Choudhury, who now lives in the ECL quarters. “ECL only offered us the quarters to save its honour,” says Aturia. The day after the houses fell, residents of Harishpur blocked the National Highway-2 and demanded rehabilitation. But the protest was disrupted by the police and Rapid Action Force (RAF). They later protested in front of the office of the General Manager of the ECL, Kajora area. He adds that they went on a hunger strike for 45 days, but even that did not move the authorities. “ECL did not even come to ask us for a glass of water and about our living conditions,” says Aturia.
After receiving no assurances on rehabilitation from ECL or ADDA, the residents of Harishpur formed a committee and knocked on the doors of the block development officer, the district magistrate (DM), the governor of West Bengal and the office of the state chief minister. However, political parties used their plight for gains during the 2021 West Bengal Assembly elections. Harishpur boycotted the polls and no single vote was cast from the census town.
As per reports, ECL finally agreed to rehabilitate the people of Harishpur in April 2022. The general manager of the ECL-Kajora area reportedly told a digital news platform that the rehabilitation project for Harishpur was underway. They will not only be compensated with lands and houses, but also one member from each family will be provided a government job.
It has been three years since the subsidence tragedies of July 2020 in Harishpur. The promises made last year have yet to see the light of the day. Aturia says, “We have been sitting idle since the lockdown in 2020. We used to run small businesses and shops, but everything is shut now. How long should we wait for ECL to rehabilitate us?” He points towards the closed and rusted shutters of stores along the subsided road.
This story is supported by a grant from Earth Journalism Network’s Pathways to Net Zero project.
This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.
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