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Assam: Why are protests going on in Margherita against coal shutdown?

Local Residents, business communities, traders and coal mining employees of North Eastern Coalfield (NEC) in Assam had staged a protest against the sudden and temporary suspension of all mining operations of NEC Coal India Limited (CIL) Margherita from 3rd June. Subsequently, different organisations have raised concerns regarding the issue. Liquidation of present coal-stock will continue till existing coal stock is exhausted.

More than 300 people gathered in front of the gate of NEC CIL Margherita office and shouted various slogans against the BJP led Government both at the Centre and State for sudden decision to stop coal mining operations. People from different walks of life have protested against the ban on Tirap coal mine on June 3. Tikok coalfield had already been stopped on October 2019 and with the halt of Tirap, institutionalised coal mining has been halted in Assam. Although there are reports of illegal mining going about which the govt has even accepted earlier.

The ill-effects of coal mining

Let us first take you to what happens due to coal mining affects in Margherita. “Even after 73 years of our country’s independence, we have not seen any Electricity”, said Janu Langching. Lanching is in her 60’s and is a local resident of 3 Number Mullong Langching Gaon under Ledo Gaon Panchayat of 124 Number Margherita Constituency. The residents of the village lack basic essential amenities for their livelihood. “We have not seen electricity. We don’t have safe drinking water supply and there is lack of schools and medical facilities”, said Janu.

As observed by our reporter, the roads leading to the village are in bad condition. One of the reasons for the dilapidated condition has been due to the trucks crossing the area. As coal is found in abundance at 3 Number Langching Gaon, locals allege illegal coal mining being carried out in the area. These trucks have made it difficult for the locals to even cross the roads and the heavy vehicles further deteriorate the current roads. This was before the ban. Amid the human condition, the Balijan Tirap Forest Reserve are other forested lands have seen encroachments leading to rising man-animal conflicts. Just last month, tension prevailed at Margherita Subdivision when wild pachyderms in search of food came out from nearby Forest Reserve. The herd of elephants completely destroyed 4 houses at 2 Number Makum Pather Gaon on Friday midnight.

According to sources, a group of elephants in search of food came out and entered 2 Number Makum Pather Gaon under Makum Pather Gaon panchayat of Margherita Subdivision, which getting any food Wild Pachyderm completely destroyed 4 houses injuring, unfortunately, all those who were present at the houses manage to escape but one Rajen Tanti (38) was seriously attacked by wild Pachyderm and got injured.

Dependency: Past and present

The question is why would people criticise the closure of coal mining when the very thing affects there local environment? The answer is dependency.

This goes back to a historical time when in the year 1996, the plywood industry in Margherita was closed down due to timber cutting. Following which, hundreds of youths lost their jobs. Some of them then later migrated to another equally environmentally detrimental industry – coal.

To understand the situation, Inside Northeast contacted locals of Margherita especially the business class who rely upon the purchasing parity of the people who are employed in the coal trade. Locals have corroborated with our reporters that their business including small grocery stand to be affected if CIL moves out of the place.

Lack of diversification

Speaking to Inside Northeast, Mantosh Taye of CIL said, “This is not just limited to people but even the small tea gardens will suffer and the associated industries like bricks. How will they facilitate local consumption?”.

Also read: Villagers near Dehing Patkai lack basic amenities amid illegal coal mining

To extend the discussion of the lack of diversification, the CIL officer said, “there should have been gradual removal. I understand the harsh effects but CIL’s CSR runs the hospitals and schools here but once we are out, what will happen to them once we are out?”. The government has so far not laid out a proper rehabilitation plan taking into account these factors.

Thus, the move aimed at curbing non-renewable fossil fuels has come as shock therapy for the locals. “I am an employee, will get transferred but the unorganised sector will be the worst-hit”, said Taye. In tandem with the coal industry, there are associated economic activities going about. Second-hand Boleros for transport, local grocers and market, labour class, rented apartments among others – this demand and supply structure ceases to exist now.

This might irritate few environmentally conscious citizens as to how can people support the claims amid the dependency, but in Margherita, the vulnerability factor needs to be accounted for these anti-shutdown protests. But, all protests should not be equated in the same table as few vested interests with links to coal are doing it for their profits, claims a local source.

Govt lethargy

The govt’s move to ban without an alternative might backfire amid the good intentions. With those CSR funding of CIL, they could have easily tapped in the eco-tourism potential of the peripheries of the region and developed it to switch to sustainable modes. However, as things stand in India: it’s always the binary of good or bad. The inner contradictions stand unaddressed in Assam.

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