Sandi, West Bengal: Sixty-year-old Manju Rui Das, who works at an illegal coal mine in West Bengal’s Ranigunj area, usually finds it difficult to sleep at night. Still fresh in her mind is the explosion in an abandoned coal mine nearby in 2008 that she survived but wrecked her home.

Mining menace: (clockwise from top left) Locals watch as smoke and methane gas emanate from a huge crack in the ground as a result of excessive mining; cracks such as these abound in West Bengal’s Samdi region; a family squats at the place where once its dwelling stood; and an abandoned mine at Sangramgarh near Asansol. Photographs: Indranil Bhoumik / Mint

That blast rocked the entire neighbourhood of Sangramgarh, recalls Das. “With the area caving in, thousands of people became homeless overnight," she said. “A lot of people continue to find it difficult to sleep."

While she knows the life-threatening incident was caused by illegal coal mining, Das continues to work at such a mine. “It’s scary and I lost my home because of it…but I can’t stop working at the mines—it’s a question of survival," says Das.

Illegal mines have turned the topography of parts of India into a surreal landscape— fires rage under the surface fuelled by methane explosions, spewing smoke through yawning fissures. With no control on the mining activity and absence of the technical expertise needed to control the subterranean inferno, the ground simply caves in right under people’s homes.

Stopping the practice may lead to catastrophes of another sort, so the government is learning to live with the illegal mines and even work around them.

The administration hasn’t been able to stem the expansion of illegal mining in areas adjoining Ranigunj and Asansol towns in West Bengal’s coal-rich Burdwan district, and now mines burrowing into residential neighbourhoods are set to displace some 200,000 people, or 33,000 families, according to the Asansol-Durgapur Development Authority (ADDA)—a state government-controlled civic body.

Private miners have spread across some 1,700 sq. km, said an ADDA official who did not want to be named because he isn’t authorized to speak to the media. “At least 149 neighbourhoods have been declared unsafe for dwelling, and people from these areas are being moved to safer locations," he added.

“Coal is so abundantly available in these areas that almost every household has been mining coal in its backyard," said Partha Bhattacharyya, chairman of government-owned miner Coal India Ltd (CIL). “Illegal mining has thrived like a cottage industry, and there is no political will to stop it."

CIL, too, doesn’t have the resources to crack down on illegal mines on its own, Bhattacharyya said. CIL’s subsidiary Eastern Coalfields Ltd (ECL) has a licence to mine around 686 sq. km in the Ranigunj area. “But we have only 2,500 CISF (Central Industrial Security Force) jawans guarding the area. If we are to keep an eye on every household, we need many more security guards," he added.

Besides digging up vacant plots, private miners extract coal from mines abandoned by ECL or even by private companies that were dug before the nationalization of collieries. Because of poor mining techniques, excavation makes the surface unstable; cracks appear and widen with the underground combustion of methane gas trapped in coal beds.

Controlling this combustion is very difficult, according to an ECL official who did not want to be named because he isn’t authorized to speak to the media.

“Even for organized players such as ECL, it isn’t always possible to control the combustion of coal bed methane," he said. “So you would see smoke coming out of cracks on the ground across the whole area."

Private miners who operate in this area enjoy political backing, and employ hundreds of thousands of people, which is why it is almost impossible to stamp out the practice.

A recent CIL-commissioned study by Jamshedpur-based management school Xavier Labour Research Institute showed that stopping illegal mining would have adverse socio-economic implications for the local people, Bhattacharyya said.

The coal extracted from the illegal mines sells for Rs250-300 a tonne, said the ECL official cited earlier. “The workers are forced to work for up to 12 hours a day in extremely dangerous conditions, and earn Rs50-60 a day," he said.

Hundreds of workers die every year because of accidents. Local sponge iron factories consume most of the coal extracted from these mines; some of it is sold in the retail market, too.

“There’s hardly any employment opportunity here and the soil is unsuitable for agriculture," said local Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, leader Tapan Chandra. “So if we were to stop private mining, hundreds of thousands of people would lose their livelihoods."

Malay Ghatak, a leader of the Trinamool Congress—West Bengal’s main opposition party—from Asansol alleged that private miners were doing brisk business because of the CPM’s support.

“The CPM is now trying to shore up support for itself by offering to relocate the affected people, but it is the CPM which is responsible in the first place for the displacement of so many people," he said.

Unable to contain the menace of illegal mining, the state government has finalized a resettlement plan for the 200,000 affected people. Many may be left out because the number of affected people is swelling every day.

It has secured a commitment from the Union coal ministry that it will provide at least Rs2,600 crore over the next 10 years for the rehabilitation of people affected by mines in the Asansol and Ranigunj areas, according to the ADDA official cited earlier.

Under a 10-year programme, ADDA is to build two-three new townships to relocate the affected people. In those townships, Adda would give 100 sq. m plots free to each family losing its home, and a cash compensation equivalent to the current market price of the homes being abandoned. Those who do not want to build new homes would each get a 450 sq. ft flat.

“Over and above these, one in each displaced family would get 250 days’ minimum wage (a year) for two years," said the ADDA official. “We will also persuade government-owned companies such as Durgapur Steel Plant (a unit of Steel Authority of India Ltd) and Hindustan Cables Ltd, which have factories in this area, to employ the displaced people."

ADDA has already started relocating people to safer ground, particularly those who have lost their homes, such as those in Sangramgarh, to the staff quarters of ECL.

Das and a few others from Sangramgarh refused to move into them because three-four families are being crammed into each flat.