Updated: April 26, 2021 6:13:16 am
Cycling home from work, Sajjan Chakraborty pauses next to a board welcoming one to the Sonpur Bazaari open-cast coal mine in West Bengal’s Raniganj. He removes the cloth wrapped around his face to wipe off his sweat. A layer of black soot appears on his finger.
“This cloth you see across my face is not because of corona. For years, we have to do this to protect ourselves from the coal dust. The corona hell has only come now. For people that live here, it has always been hell,” says the carpenter.
The residents of the mining villages of Raniganj are all too familiar with this soot emanating from the Sonpur Bazaari mine. For decades, it has covered their broken roads, flown into their cracked homes, and seeped into their lungs and bodies.
Run by the Eastern Coalfields and approved in 1995, this mine has been the subject of multiple protests—acquisition of land, alleged non-delivery of promises of development, rehabilitation. Little has come of these protests.
In Bazaari village, Saikat Bose says the residents’ worst fears have come true. “Look at the rest of Bengal or the country. Roads are being built, there is development. That development comes on the back of our villages, and we get nothing. Our roads are damaged, our homes are always dirty, and there is absolutely nothing here. The food we eat and water we drink has coal in it. We feared this, and protested but nothing happened. Now it is our fate.”
On April 26, the constituencies around the mine—Jamuria, and Pandabeswar—will go to the polls as part of the seventh and penultimate phase of the West Bengal assembly elections. But years of struggle have ensured that the residents have lost consonance with the electoral process.
“The Eastern Coalfields are run by the Centre and our battle has always been with them. For seven years, the BJP has been at the centre but nothing has changed in the way they treat us. The Left allowed for this to happen, and the TMC has done nothing substantial too. Who is there to trust?,” Bose said. This lack of trust is a common refrain.
There is evidence of the impending elections in the dusty lanes—flags of the TMC, BJP and the Left stuck on homes and posters on walls, next to political graffiti. There are also signs of some last-minute work to woo voters. Right next to a broken road and a malfunctioning hand-pump is freshly-painted blue and white tiled wall, with photographs of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on it. Protruding from the wall are five taps.
“I am glad that they are here. But do you see how we live? We still need clean water. When the mine rumbles, the earth shakes, and our homes have cracks and parts of them keep falling off. Even the roads separate sometimes because of the mining. We can’t farm, and all our men have become menial workers. Nobody fixes our lives,” said Savitri Thakur from Bhatmura village.
There is another reason for the lack of faith in the electoral process—a malignant parallel system that has shown no sign of giving way for decades. While the mine may be owned by Eastern Coalfields and its trucks may trundle in and out, it is a powerful local coal “mafia” and its strongmen that have truly embedded themselves in the area—selling small amounts of coal in the black market, influencing election results and stripping people of agency.
“If you stand outside your house, you will see people carrying coal in their cycles away. Even we do it to make some money. If they cant give us compensation, or jobs, why shouldn’t we feed our families from what comes from our land,” one village resident said.
Says another resident: “These local leaders control everything. They who control the coal have the money. Our lives are dependent on them. They have muscle too. So when they ask someone to vote one way, everybody does. Every party tries to get in touch with them. The Left did, the TMC did, and now the BJP is trying to get them. Even this time they are doing it, to this day. When the message comes to vote one way, and we have to live here, what choice will we have.”
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