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Trinamul poll vault on coal theft
- Eye on panchayat elections, ruling party ‘backs’ illegal trade in Asansol and Durgapur

Asansol, Sept. 28: Coal smuggling has started again in Durgapur and Asansol with the alleged backing of a section of local Trinamul leaders that fears losing the support of around 1.5 lakh people who became jobless after the illegal trade stopped because of a drive by the party-led government.

With an eye on the panchayat elections next year, these Trinamul leaders have requested police to stop the crackdown on coal pilferage so that the “poor people” involved in the trade do not lose their livelihood, the CPM and residents have alleged. The commissioner of the Asansol-Durgapur commissioner denied such allegations.

The coal racketeers, who used to earn around Rs 400 a day, became jobless after the Mamata Banerjee government launched a crackdown on coal smuggling after coming to power in May last year. Alleged kingpins Raju Jha, Kale Singh and Joydev Mandal were arrested between June and August. They are now out on bail and have been maintaining a low profile.

The drive against pilferage started after Mamata led a procession of 30,000 people in April last year to protest the death of Trinamul worker Robin Kazi under the wheels of the car of alleged coal smuggler Dinabandhu Bauri. Mamata had accused the CPM of patronising the trade.

According to police sources, some Trinamul leaders in Asansol and Durgapur have “taken the initiative” to resume organised coal smuggling and are trying to convince the party leadership in Calcutta about the “negative impact” opposition to pilfering would have on the rural polls.

A senior Trinamul leader in Raniganj said: “At least 1.5 lakh people across the 1,600sqkm coal belt are dependent on pilfering and the huge vote bank cannot be ignored. After we came to power, organised coal smuggling was stopped and they became jobless.

“It was not possible to give all of them work under the 100-day job scheme. The daily wages under the scheme is Rs 136, much lower than what they used to earn pilfering coal. These jobless people are turning against us and the CPM is trying to cash in. We have told our leaders in Calcutta that if we want to do well in panchayat polls in the area, we must be lenient towards them.”

Of the seven panchayat samitis in Asansol-Durgapur, five are controlled by the Left Front, while Trinamul and the Congress have one each. The Left controls 12 of the 14 zilla parishads in the area.

“If we are strict about stopping coal smuggling, it will be difficult for us to defeat the Left here,” a Trinamul leader in Asansol said.

He said the CPM had started a “secret campaign” in the twin towns against the crackdown.

Amal Haldar, the Burdwan CPM secretary, said: “Trinamul is trying to use the dirty money from coal smuggling to buy the votes of poor people.”

As the police “look the other way”, villagers alleged, small-time pilferers are stealing coal from Eastern Coalfields Ltd (ECL) mines and open-cast mines in Salanpur, Raniganj, Jamuria, Barabani, Pandaveswar and Kulti.

The smuggled coal is being transported to brickfields and sponge iron factories on motorised cycle vans, mini trucks and cycles. Pilfered coal is also being ferried on the Damodar and Ajoy rivers on rubber tubes.

The commissioner of the Asansol-Durgapur police commissionerate, Ajay Nand, said he had no idea that coal smuggling had started again. “The police have been continuously cracking down on coal smuggling,” he said.

The Coal Mines Officers’ Association of India alleged cases of pilfering from stockyards had increased and the racketeers were regularly assaulting officials. “Coal smuggling has started again,” said Damodar Banerjee, the general secretary of the association.

The ECL has taken “serious note” of the menace after three coal pilferers got trapped and killed while extracting coal from an illegal mine close to the company’s open-cast project in Salanpur on August 25. It has began a probe to find out how many illegal mines have come up around its legal mines.

In a memo to all chief general managers and general managers, ECL chairman-cum-managing director Rakesh Sinha wrote on August 27: “It is a matter of great concern that now such illegal mining activities are being carried out within the ECL leasehold area.... You are advised to examine the areas and put up the matter with the state administration.”