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Clock ticks on Bengal coal mines

Subsidence, pit fire and rampant coal loot from stockyard — everything have been happening in the captive coal mines of West Bengal Power Development Corporation Ltd (WBPDCL) that have remained closed since April 1 after a Supreme Court order.

The Supreme Court has directed closure of all 214 coal mines on September 24 last year. But the WBPDCL and Durgapure Projects Limited (DPL) have been able to retain all the coal blocks — Pachwara (North), Borjora, Gangaramchak, Gangaramchak-Bhadulia, Borjora (North), Tara (East) and Tara (West) coal blocks.

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WBPDCL and DPL, the original coal block allottees, do not have any experience of running the coal blocks. They have entrusted the state-owned West Bengal Mineral Development and Trading Corporation (WBMDTC) to look after the coal blocks and select a suitable mine development organization.

However, according to the director general of mines safety (DGMS), there is no provision for any middleman in the Coal Mining Act, 1973, which is set to brew further trouble in future. WBMDTC has decided to retain all the 4,000 employees of these coal blocks and pay them salary since April 1, 2015. The government will have to bear a monthly expenditure of more than Rs 5 crores to give salary to them. It is also not clear how long the cash-strapped state government will be able to pay the salary and provident fund dues of these employees when they are sitting idle.

Ever since closing all the mines on April 1, WBPDCL has been purchasing coal from the market at a price which is Rs 2,500 more (in every kg) than the earlier captive coal price. WBPDCL is paying around Rs 175 crores extra a month to purchase coal from market. Already, power generation in plants at Bakreswar, Sagardighi and Bandel have been drastically curtailed. The daily coal requirement of all the plants has come down to 38,000 tonnes from 52,000 tonnes due to the shutdown of units. In Deshermohan village of Jamuria, a subsidence has occurred in Tara coal mine because of lack of maintenance. But nobody is willing to spend Rs 2.5 crores for reclamation of 2 lakh cubic metres of land, as the mine is closed. Additional district magistrate of Asansol Sunit Gupta is worried about the subsidence and he has already called a meeting to discuss the issue.

In Pachwara (North) coal block of WBPDCL in Pakur of Jharkhand, miscreants have looted more than 50,000 tonnes of coal from the stockyard which amounts to about Rs 22 crores. As the previous company has curtailed 60% of the security guards there after the closure, only the machineries and employees are being guarded there.

But the worst incident has happened in Pachwara (Central) of Punjab State Power Corporation Ltd (PSPCL) where the coal seam, stockyard and coal siding have all been engulfed in fire. The overburdened stockyard there needs immediate coal removal to douse the flames. The Pachwara (North) coal mine of WBPDCL is just adjacent and if the fire continues at Pachwara (Central) for 15 more days, the coal seam at Pachwara (North) will also catch fire.

Karnataka Power Corporation Ltd has already decided to run the coal block at Baranj in Maharashtra with the previous MDO until a full-time new MDO is finalized. Coal industry experts said that if these coal mines remained closed for another six months, it will take more than a year to start production as all these mines would be filled with monsoon rain because apart from the problems of fire, subsidence and coal loot.

However, Asansol MP Babul Supriyo has blamed the Trinamool government for the mess in the captive coal blocks.


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