Field Notes: Coal Underground, No Roof Overhead

NILADRY SARKAR

Paschim Bardhaman: Two distinct tragedies met me when I arrived in Harishpur one midsummer morning in the month of May. One took place in July 2020, the other was unfolding in front of my eyes.

The narrow main road into Harishpur, a town located in the Raniganj Coal Field region of West Bengal’s Paschim Bardhaman district, was strewn with rubble, and then the collapsed houses came into view. More than 20 houses had fallen like a pack of cards while many others bore deep cracks. The homes were abandoned, their former compounds unkempt.

It looked a lot like a quake-hit town. But in fact, the town had been hit by a ‘subsidence’ on July 14, 2020, or the earth collapsing due to mining activities in the nearby Madhabpur colliery. At least 25 families had lost homes, said 38-year-old Tapan Gope, one of the newly homeless. He had lived in Harishpur since his birth. He now lives in the nearby Andal town with his family of 10.

For hundreds, life changed overnight. The second tragedy, however, was far from over. For, the fate of those who lost the roof over their head was intricately linked to the ground beneath their feet, where there could be valuable coal reserves. 

Despite government schemes to rehabilitate the subsidence-affected, none will be compensated or relocated until the mining company decides to mine where their houses once stood. If there was coal deep beneath their pile of rubble, only then would they be compensated.   

I could see the slow erosion of their dignity, continuing years after the loss of their homes. 

“We had our own home,” Janata Bauri, a 42-year-old housewife in Porascole, told me. “But can you imagine, we broke into the vacant quarters of the Eastern Coalfield Ltd in the dead of night like thieves.” Her husband is an ECL employee himself. And yet he received no rehabilitation after their house became uninhabitable.  

The thousands who are subsidence-hit in the RCF area suffer peculiar kinds of distress that officials ignore, such as deprivation of social circles for support.

Gope was just passing through Harishpur the day of my visit. He wanted to take a long look at his broken house, once a two-storey home with a little uthon (open patch) in the front where his family had planted a tulsi mancha, a holy basil shrub with a traditional planter on a raised platform. Like Gope's home, the tulsi mancha stood broken as well.

Since his home of over 50 years “collapsed like a pack of cards” in July 2020, Gope has lived in a rented house in Andal. Talking about the new house appears to evoke in him odd grief, and he concedes to me that he has a persistent yearning for the familiar sights and sounds of his home town.

That’s why he’s here now, to gaze sadly at the pile of rubble that was his home’s front wall.   

He asks his friends what’s been happening in town during his absence. His old friends’ group has scattered too–only those stayed behind who could not afford the additional expense of renting a house elsewhere.

Harishpur’s residents, having waited 20 months to restart their lives in new homes, are cautiously hopeful that ECL, a subsidiary of public sector major Coal India Limited, wants to mine where the town stands. 

Gope and hundreds of his neighbours could finally get a place to call home once again. 

You can read Niladry Sarkar's full story here.

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