DIGBOI/MARGHERITA, Aug 12 - The flourishing coal mining industry, including those run illegally, in the Ledo-Margherita belt has caused a spurt in illegal coke kilns and oven plants (bhattas), causing severe environmental degradation and health hazard.
The situation is also causing substantial revenue loss for the State government, as a majority of the coke-manufacturing units feed on illegally-procured coal. Shockingly, many such plants are located in residential areas and have been operating without approval from the competent authorities, including Pollution Control Board Assam (PCBA). Most of these plants also do not procure coal from Coal India Limited (CIL) even though purchase of coals has to be done from CIL under the law.
During a visit to these areas, this correspondent witnessed illegal coke plants in large numbers in various localities in Ledo and Margherita areas. According to information accessed from PCBA (as on July 6, 2017), of the 52 running plants, only eight had valid licence while 23 had applied for licence and the rest had not even applied.
CIL data (as on December 13, 2016) showed that of the 52 plants, only seven had procured coal from it, revealing that a large majority of the plants could be running on illegally-procured coal. These seven units together accounted for a purchase of 7,033.45 MT and 13,162.32 MT from CIL in 2015-16 and 2016-17 respectively.
�In Assam, only CIL has coal mines established under various Acts and can produce and market coal to various consumers. Coke kilns or plants may purchase coal directly from Coal India Limited through various schemes of marketing or from the authorised traders,� a CIL official said.
The fact that a large number of coke bhattas procure coal from illegal miners testifies to the huge volume of illegal coal production in the area.
The official added that such plants were the principal procurers of illegally-produced coal. �These are converted into coke and then supplied to various destinations in and outside the State. This causes a big loss to the State exchequer,� he said.
Environmental activist Surjya Kanta Dutta said that areas under Samukjan panchayat, Borgolai panchayat, Ledo Colliery panchayat, etc., were witnessing a mushrooming growth in the illegal and highly-polluting coke industry.
�This has been a grave environmental and health hazard. Most of these plants are illegal and running under the very nose of the authorities, including the police. Only a few of these plants purchase coal through legal means and the rest procure those in great volumes from the thriving illegal coal mines, both opencast and rat-hole. They also pilfer coal from the Coal India stockyards,� he said.
Dutta added that at present the number of coke plants and ovens would be close to a hundred. �The high concentration of such a large number of units within a small area shows that most are functioning illegally. The authorities cannot grant permission for so many plants within such a small area. And what about those in the residential areas? As the authorities are looking the other way, this illegality is thriving,� he said.
An official with the Tinsukia district administration said that such rackets had deep-rooted nexuses with the various government authorities, coal mafia, transporters and others, not only in extraction but also in transportation.