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Coal Mines Closure: Economic War Against West Bengal

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By our special correspondent 

Eastern Coalfields Ltd. (ECL), a Govt. of India undertaking under Ministry of Coal, decided in its Board Meeting held on 22.10.98 to close down 6(six) of it's areas five of which are located in Asansol-Raniganj in West Bengal and one in Bihar. The consequence of this drastic decision would be a closure of 64 mines employing more than 71,000 workers, which would severely hit the economy of the whole region.

This exercise was planned with precision and in a great hurry in the coal ministry itself and the ECL Board had been virtually used as a cover to execute this plan. ECL Board's decision referred to a report, i.e., Restructuring cum revival plan prepared by ICICI, a Financial Institution, engaged by Coal India. However, the report of ICICI categorised them as "mines with difficult working conditions" and there was no generalisation of mines as unviable. ICICI report has further pointed out that phasing out of these so-called unviable mines "is wider issue of socio-economic concerns" and therefore was not practicable from implementation point of view. The Coal Ministry on its own circulated a note recommending closure of these mines with the ultimatum that neither the Govt. nor the Coal India Ltd., the holding Company of ECL and other subsidiaries, would lend any financial support to ECL for meeting the outstanding liabilities. This is inspite of the fact that there is no techno-economic basis for closing these mines mostly underground.

ECL produces the best type of non-coking coal in the country. The special characterisitics of this type of non-coking coal are high volatile, high heat value, quick ignition and long flame. Almost entire export is of Raniganj Coal. Due to special characterisitc consumers prefer Raniganj Coal and hence there is no dearth of demand against actual supply. Only four months back in June, 1998, financial restructuring was done in ECL to make its net-worth positive. But the Ministry of Coal had its own plan as evident from the fact that after the board meeting on 22.10.98, the draft note for the Board Meeting was dictated through a fax message by the Adviser, Ministry of Coal on 27.10.98.

Such drastic decision was taken without consulting the Trade Unions as well as the State Govts. of West Bengal and Bihar. ECL Management is trying to cover up its own inefficiency as well as corruption in high places by focussing the problems only on the issue of excess manpower and the cess charged by the State Govt. It is worthwhile mentioning that before nationalization in 1973, these mines produced 7 million ton with a manpower of 1,92,000 as against the present production of about 27 million tons with the manpower of 1,50,000 approx.

Even after a relief of 20% announced by the State Govt. on Cess, ECL is still insisting on closure of these mines. Parliamentary Committees and others associated with coal industry have been for years pointing out bad investment in longwall projects and regular pilferage of coal worth crores of rupees from these mines as major constraints in achieving profitability. Right now when the country imports coal worth Rs. 4,100 crores, this politically inspired decision of closing the viable mines are intended to satisfy the import lobby backed by World Bank and IMF and petty traders in the country who are keen to take over the closed mines. Chief Minister, Govt. of West Bengal, and the Central Trade Unions have in unambiguous terms opposed this planned move by the Govt. of India to create social disorder in the coal belt areas of West Bengal. People in the coal belt area as well as in the State are agitated and protests are being raised in every nook and corner in the State for sustained fight against this motivated anti-worker and anti-state move by Govt. of India.

Chief Minister, Govt. of West Bengal who had taken up the issue with the Prime Minister, held a meeting with the Minister of Coal Govt. of India on 25.11.98. It was made clear that State Govt. would oppose the closure and would insist on an acceptable revival scheme which would include improvement in productivity, strict Cost Control measures, proper accountably for management, suitable changes in the Govt. policy intribiting capital investment in ECL etc. Under the pressure from the State Govt. and the trade unions Govt. of India had now agreed to defer the closure of the mines and retrenchment of the workers for a month. But this is only a temporary retreat by the Govt. The fight of the people of the state would continue till the decision is totally reverted. The workers are vigilant as can be seen from the incident on 27/11/98 when ECL management tried to remove some machineries from two collieries in Raniganj area. The workers resisted thus provocative step by the management and stalled the efforts by forcing the management to maintain the statuesque.

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