Anwar Hussain rarely wakes up late if it is a weekday.
In his early 40s, the father of two daughters from Deshermohan village in Burdwan’s Churulia is up by 3.30am to earn a living.
By 4am, he heads out on his bullock cart and hits the winding road that leads to the coal depot near the Tara open cast mine, around 6km from his home and at the other end of Churulia.
At the depot, he buys coal — some 3 to 3.5 tonnes — pilfered from the Bengal-EMTA mine nearby or small illegal pits dotting the region. He proceeds to Borkolaghat in Birbhum, some 6km from Churulia across the Ajoy river.
Anwar, not his real name which he will not reveal because of the nature of his work, is a cog in an illegal but inoculated machine that sucks up pilfered coal and pumps it out at selling points along the Burdwan-Birbhum border.
The machine, humming along for so many years, acquired a sinister edge on August 12 when Trinamul leader Ashok Ghosh was shot dead in Khoirashol, 16km from Suri, the district headquarters in Birbhum.
Coal-belt veterans feel that Ghosh was a victim of a turf battle within the ruling party for control of the resource-rich region. “We can carry on with this trade only if we have the support of politicians and local police,” Anwar said.
“For the past eight years, this is what I have been doing some four to five days a week,” he added.
The protection comes at a price, which Anwar and others shell out to agents who allegedly collect the money on behalf of the police.
Coal is the only source of income for Anwar, a farm labourer who switched to the illegal trade.
Across the barren landscape bordering Burdwan and Birbhum, income-generating opportunities are sparse. Occasional farming in small patches doesn’t yield much. Barring the 20-odd mines owned by Eastern Coalfields Ltd and Bengal-EMTA, there is no industry in the region.
Stolen coal has filled the vocational vacuum. Anwar owns a pucca house with a television set and his children go to school — a lifestyle that contrasts with the mud house in which he grew up and his inability to study beyond Class VIII.
“In the peak season, I earn between Rs 2,000 and Rs 2,500 a day by selling pilfered coal, which on most occasions is E-grade, the most inferior variety. If the grade is good, such as B, the return is higher,” Anwar said.
Like people in other professions, he has plans to upgrade the tools of his trade. “It is not possible to trade every day because the bullocks get tired. But there are some who have bought two sets of bullocks and I am also planning to do so.”
Anwar has climbed a few rungs of the coal supply ladder since joining the illegal trade. “People start with cycles, then they buy cycle-vans and finally they use bullock carts,” said a fellow trader.
Between 2,000 and 3,000 tonnes of pilfered coal are ferried every day. The loss to the mines can go up to Rs 2 crore as each tonne sells for Rs 7,000 in the open market.
From Burdwan, the stolen coal winds its way through several points and reaches parts of Murshidabad, where brick kiln owners and sponge iron factories buy in bulk. Some quantity in bags is sold to individuals for domestic use. The price of coal goes up at each transhipment point. (See chart)
In keeping with contraband economics, the pilfered coal is cheaper than the market price by Rs 2,000 a tonne. The better variety sells for Rs 5,000 a tonne.
Pilferage is a crime but the trade is thriving because of institutional arrangements blessed by politicians and police.
“We keep informing the administration of the pilferage at regular intervals but there is no change on the ground,” said N.C. Mukherjee, executive director, Bengal-EMTA.
Helplessness has become the mother of improvisation. Some mine owners have employed villagers to avert pilferage. “We employ at least 330 youths at Rs 100 per day per person when we send out wagons carrying coal,” added Mukherjee.
A senior police officer who had served in the area earlier said it was virtually impossible to launch a crackdown. “The people involved were under the CPM’s patronage till 2011 and have now shifted their loyalty to Trinamul,” he said.
Ghosh’s murder on August 12 has lifted the veil on the struggle for area domination within Trinamul in Birbhum. “This is a political murder and a fallout of an intra-party feud,” Ghosh’s son Biswajit told The Telegraph.
Although the Ghosh family has been silent on the reason behind the feud, sources said a block-level leader was desperate to undermine the influence of the politician who was murdered.
Khoirashol falls at the centre of the route through which illegal coal is ferried from the mines to the end-users.
The route in Birbhum is covered by two police stations, Khoirashol and Kankortola, and every coal trader has to pay off the cops through a “pad” system. (See chart)
Sources said that in the lean monsoon season, a police station collects around Rs 30,000 to Rs 40,000 a day. In the peak winter season, the amount crosses Rs 1 lakh a day, the sources said.
Several people said a slice goes to politicians, too. “The contribution is the reason behind the fight for area domination,” said a Trinamul insider.