Riverbed coal mining on Simsang river fuels life in Bangladesh

From CK Nayak

NEW DELHI, April 17: Every now and then illegal rat-hole coal mining in Meghalaya pops up in different forums from academics to judiciary.
But standing in the shallow waters of Simsang river spanning across the Indo-Bangla border, hundreds of poor people mine coal also illegally from beneath the water mainly in the summer season. Simsang flows through the heart of the Garo Hills, dividing the area into two parts and changes its name to Someshwari as it transcends the borders and gushes down into Bangladesh.
Every year, the heavy monsoon and flash flood carries huge amounts of silica and silt mixed in with coal, washed down from the Meghalaya coal fields, and deposits it in the riverbed of Someshwari. The coal is left buried in layers of silts.
During the dry season when the water level recedes, the workers collectively extract more than 100 tonnes of coal each day.
The Someshwari riverbank vibrates with the constant buzz from its numerous motor pumps used to drain out water.
Some among them tirelessly dig the riverbed with their spades while others prick the bed with a long and shiny galvanised iron (GI) wire. Some hold large triangle-shaped strainers to take out coal while others load tipper trucks with silica sands – extracted from the quarries.
Approximately, 1,500-1,600 men work across a stretch of 2-2.5 kilometres. They are all informal workers who live by mining “black gold”. And according to local wholesalers, the price range varies between Rs 10,000-15,000 per tonne, depending on the quality of coal.
The coal, though drenched in water, is highly flammable. Given the availability of the fossil fuel, brick kiln owners around Mymensingh division often source coal from Durgapur in Bangladesh.
Nobody knows exactly where the “black gold” is hidden. One can find coal either one foot or five feet beneath the riverbed. Soon after identifying the coal, one of the workers will set the bamboo-framed strainer against the strong river current while others will dig the riverbed.
No one knows where exactly the coal lies since coal is deposited and scattered along layers of silt. But by adopting crude method, diggers push a GI wire under the water. If it feels very hard, it must be stone and it feels sticky, it is wet coal.
The small particles of silica seep out of the strainer while chips of wet coal get blocked. The diggers continue striking the riverbed with their spade until the strainer becomes heavy.
Then they fill sacks with the one mound of filtered coal and load the motorized boats anchored near them. The boat operators later transport the coal to ports.

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