In Assam, civil society groups have long accused the Bharatiya Janata Party-led state government of allowing illegal coal mining to thrive in the state. Now, these allegations could singe Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal himself.

In the last week of September, members of the Congress distributed what they claimed were incriminating photographs to journalists. The photographs showed Sonowal with a man named Sunil Kumar Gurung alleged to be involved in illegal mining operations. Gurung had been named in a confidential letter written in February by the director of the state geology and mining directorate to the deputy commissioner of Tinsukia district, flagging the problem of illegal coal mining in the area. has reviewed the letter.

Tinsukia, on the eastern fringes of the state, is home to Assam’s most substantial coal reserves. The North Eastern Coal Fields, a unit of the state-owned Coal India Limited, has exclusive mining rights to these reserves.

The district is also dotted by several rainforests – there are as many as 17 reserved forests in the district. The Congress alleges that several new extraction sites have cropped up inside these forests – outside the notified coal fields – since the BJP took over the state’s reins in 2016.

Gurung (extreme right) with Sonowal and Dibrugarh BJP MLA Bhaskar Sharma (third from left).

Coal as coke?

Pradyut Bordoloi, the Congress MP from Nowgong constituency, was earlier the MLA of the coal-rich Margherita constituency in Tinsukia. “Units ostensibly set up to produce coke from raw coal brought from Coal India through the e-auction process have sprung up inside the forests,” he alleged.

Coke, an important industrial product with a range of uses including as fuel, is obtained by heating coal in the absence of oxygen. Coke-manufacturing units usually procure coal through centralised online auctions.

“These so-called coke units, fortified by 15 feet high walls, are the nerve centre of the coal mining operation, where thousands of workers dig coal through the rat hole technique,” Bordoloi said.

The rat-hole mining technique entails digging small vertical pits to reach the mineral. Bordoloi claims to have evidence to back his accusations: a series of “sting” videos showing dozens of trucks ferrying out what he alleges to be raw coal from these coke production units. “On an average, there are 600 trucks every day armed with fake challans [apparently from the transport department],” he claimed. “The amount of deforestation that this has led to – it is a pure gold rush of devastation.”

A petition filed in the National Green Tribunal in 2018 by an environmental activist, R Sreedhar, echoes these allegations. “There has been a proliferation of such mining in the area [Tinsukia district], with extraction of about 600 tonnes per day both in the form of ‘Rat Hole’ and Surface Mining,” the petition states. “That nexus exists between the illegal coal mining operators and the operators of the Coke Oven Plant.”

Bordoloi’s charges, however, go one step further. He claims that the district administration is “hand in glove” with the smugglers, who are in turn patronised by BJP leaders; that workers are routinely trapped to death in these rat-hole mines and their stories buried by the local media.

“This audacity comes from the knowledge that they have the support of the top echelons of the government,” claimed the Congress leader. “All of this is being controlled from the office of the chief minister.”

‘Action data’

The state government dismisses such claims. “All of this used to happened in the Congress’s time,” said Assam government spokesperson Chandra Mohan Patowary, who is also a senior cabinet minister. “We have, in fact, put a stop to it.”

Pabitra Margherita, a spokesperson for the state BJP unit, also came to the defence of his party’s government. A legacy of the Congress regime, “coal syndicates” were a thing of the past, he insisted, citing “data”.

“This government has seized over 9,500 tonnes of illegally transported coal, more than 500 people have been arrested, 300 vehicles have been seized, and several FIRs have been lodged,” he said.

(Not) addressing the ‘real issue’

But this supposed punitive action may not have been adequate to curb illegal mining in the area. In October 2018, the Gauhati High Court noted that “action that was taken to seize the mining materials” does not “address the real issue” of illegal mining. “The action that was required was to prevent the illegal mining and protect the environment and not to take subsequent action after permitting such illegal mining,” the court said, while hearing a public interest litigation on the matter.

After the court’s observations, the directorate of geology and mining also wrote several letters to Tinsukia’s civil and police administration, complaining of “large scale theft of coal by illegal mining” in the district. has reviewed two such letters from February and April 2019.

The district police say that they act when there are complaints. “FIRs are routinely lodged and trucks carrying illegal coal seized,” said a senior district police official, who did not want to be identified. “But this is a border district and we have many other issues to tackle, such as insurgency.”

The thick jungles in the area, which segue into Arunachal Pradesh, have been long been a hub of militant groups, particularly the banned United Liberation Front of Assam.

‘Flush with cash’

The Congress’s Bordoloi, however, insists that the lack of action is deliberate and a result of political pressure. “The trade is flush with cash, and all of it is going to the coffers of the BJP,” he alleged. “Every thana in the area gets a cut.”

The legislator also denied the BJP’s claims that most of these illegal mines had first sprung up when he was in charge – Bordoloi represented Margherita for three straight terms from 2001 to 2016. All it would take is satellite imagery to settle that issue, Bordoloi pointed out. “You just have to compare what the area looked like from 2001-2016 and 2016-19,” he said. “All I am asking for is an independent inquiry. Why is the government not doing that?”

An investigation

Patowary said the chief minister has already written to the Central Bureau of Investigation in June 2018, but is yet to hear from the agency. Besides, the Criminal Investigation Department of the Assam Police, he said, had already been probing the matter since February 2018. “The final report of that investigation is still pending,” he said.

But LR Bishnoi, who heads Assam’s CID, said the department’s investigation was not looking into unlawful mining, but the illegal transportation of coal. An investigator in the case said the department had arrested a total of 19 people, including 11 government officials in the case. “We are awaiting prosecution sanction now,” said the police official. “It is an ongoing investigation.”

Meanwhile, the BJP has played down the consequences of the chief minister being photographed with a person accused by a government agency of being part of illicit coal operation. “A public figure gets photographed with all sorts of people,” said Margherita. “We should not read too much into that.”

Gurung, too, denied any “personal connections” with the Sonowal. “I am associated with many cultural organisations, so I meet the CM in that capacity when he comes to Margherita,” said Gurung, who is a functionary at the state’s oldest and most influential literary body, Assam Sahitya Sabha.

In any case, he added, the charges of illegal mining against him were “baseless”. “I run a mini-scale coke production unit with all clearances obtained during the Congress’s time,” he said.