Editor-in-Chief, Daily Post
‘Coalgate’ has become a household name, perhaps more popular than the similar-sounding brand of toothpaste, courtesy a power-hungry Opposition treating it as a godsend for the 2014 polls. The issue reminds me of one of my visits to a coal belt of Jharkhand on the trail of a report on coal mafia, about 14 years ago. It served me then as an eye-opener, and hope, as I recall the sequence, will make people, especially the politicians, trying to haul each other over the coals, wise to this stark reality.
Summer was at its peak and the sun could not be more merciless. I was on my way to the coal belt of Jharkhand with photographer Amit Shanker, when we spotted scores of bare-footed tribals in Chatra district, heading towards the adjoining Hazaribagh town, each having precariously balanced a coal bag on his bicycle. Since coal is a national property and cannot be mined without obtaining permission, the reporter in me raised my curiosity. I asked the driver to head towards the place where the tribals were bringing the coal from. Having travelled 12 km on the dust-laden kutch-pakka path passing for a road after diverging from the highway, we reached a place to find something bizarre.
About 50 ill-clad villagers, equipped with diggers and shovels, were digging the earth to illegally mine out coal from a farmland, far away from the sight of the powers that be. Seeing two strangers coming, they took to their heels but only to regroup after a short while, having armed themselves with guns and locally made weapons. They were all Naxals, some looked aggressive, others ferocious.
Taking us for intelligence sleuths or government agents, they threw a circle around and threatened to kill us. It took us some petrified moments and tireless pleadings in beseeching tones to convince them about our credentials as journalists from Delhi who had come chasing a report. Convinced of our bona fides, they softened up, turned friendly, and told us the tale of their plight that had forced them to become Naxals, and get into illegal activities.
“Between the 60s and 70s, the government took away our lands for coal mining, promising us jobs and good life. The pittance we got in the name of compensation for our lands, the only source of livelihood, was spent in a few years. We had neither job, nor land. We were forced to fend for our families by first committing petty crimes, and then organising ourselves into gangs. Now, they call us Naxals,” said their leader, who looked sensible. We were virtually swept off our feet when told that he was a graduate from St Colombus College in Hazaribagh.
The harsh realty had begun to sink in.
Back, we made a detailed study of the Jharkhand, West Bengal and nearby Odisha coal belts, and this brought to the fore a common factor. Organised coal mafia, hand in glove with an indifferent and insensitive government, made Naxals or Maoists of the simple and peace-loving people who, authorities maintain, now pose the biggest threat to internal security.
What shocked me more was the fact that for every tonne of coal taken out of the earth, the Government of India (read the state-run PSU, Eastern Coalfields Limited which had posted an accumulated loss of Rs 1,728 crore as on March 31, 1998) lost about Rs 100 to 200. It means you not only rob mother earth of rich minerals but also the state exchequer of hundreds of crores of rupees every year. Unbelievable but true! It could not be possible without the active involvement of politicians and the coal mafia which has come to control most of the mines and mining activities across India.
Not that any party, much less the Congress and the BJP, is not aware of it. The stark reality is that every party in government, both at the Centre and in the states, has done the looting, and the Opposition, deprived of the opportunity by the electorate, has put the blame at its doors. Maybe, Comptroller and Auditor General Vinod Rai has, for the first time, computed the loss at Rs 1.86 lakh crore in the allotment of coal blocks. It is unfortunate and disgraceful that the politicians find it convenient to unite in playing with our emotions and faith in democracy.
If the main Opposition BJP is not allowing Parliament to function, it is not for any feeling for the people, or the tax payer’s plight. It simply wants to convert the godsend of CAG report into a key plank in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Never mind, if its leaders in the Karnataka Government face corruption cases for illegal mining activities. One man’s income being another man’s expenditure, it is a handle for the Opposition to beat the BJP Government in Karnataka, much the same way as the BJP is using this stick to beat the UPA with, at the Centre. Money and roles keep changing.
Knowingly or unknowingly, the CAG report has offered the Naxals and Maoists a handle, besides giving the Opposition an issue they are keen on fertilising to keep it alive until 2014. One won’t be surprised if tomorrow a Maoist or Naxal leader quotes the much-touted CAG report to highlight how Peters have been robbed by Pauls to get rich overnight, and pull an impregnable cover of justification for their unlawful activities. Are the politicians listening?