The Assam Chronicle

News and Views from Northeast India

Coal Park in Margherita at night

Margherita needs Economic Stimulus

Margherita, a sub-divisional town under Tinsukia district, is surrounded by scenic Patkai hills, rain forests and lush green tea gardens. Against such a backdrop, the Dehing River flows through the town. This frontier town was once famous in the North Eastern region for coal, tea and timber. The British discovered the presence of coal beneath the soil of this place in the later part of Nineteenth century and immediately began the process of extracting the rich mineral resource. The Assam Railway Trading Company (ART Co) owned all the coal mines and continued to do so even after independence. The Indira government decided to nationalise all the coal mines in the early 1970’s and renamed it as Coal India Ltd (CIL). Margherita is the headquarters of North Eastern Coal Fields. Coal constituted the biggest source of income of the people in this region for a long time.

The ART Co also developed other industries such as tea and timber by tapping local resources. All the tea industries remained in the private sector. So far, ownerships of local tea estates have changed hands several times. Some of the British companies have sold their assets to Indian business and industrial firms including Tata and Khaitan. Plywood factories flourished in the post-independence period owing to the availability of good quality trees both in Assam and Arunachal forests. But for the last two decades or so, tree cutting has been totally stopped following a Supreme Court judgment. Consequently, the thriving plywood factories have come to a grinding halt with thousands of workers losing their jobs. At present, only a few factories like Kitply and other small plywood industries are engaged in the production.

The robust local economy once attracted scores of people from other parts of the country to settle here in search of jobs and business opportunities. In addition to Assamese and various indigenous ethnic groups, the town is home to thousands of people who migrated from undivided Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Nepal to change their fortunes. Margherita also serves as a transit point to the adjoining rural belts and Arunachal’s landlocked Changlang and to an extent Tirap districts. Apart from coal and tea, the local business relys on Arunachalis belonging to diverse ethnic groups.

However, these days, the primary concern of the localites has been the shrinking job and business opportunities. The Britishers are no more to exploit the local resources and they have been replaced by coal mafias and other vested interest groups. They have emerged as the major recipients of lucrative contracts and illegal coal trade in collusion with a section of corrupt CIL officials. A sizeable segment of local youth is involved in illegal coal trade. The modusoperandi of stealing coal has undergone a sea change over the years. According to reliable sources, two kinds of methods are used to steal coal from the mining areas. In the first place, a large number of youths hailing mainly from the foothill regions manage to siphon off coal right from the production site. CIL’s security personnel and union leaders generally facilitate the process in return for monetary gains. The local administration, including Assam Police, has joined the bandwagon honing its money making skills. It has been roughly estimated that 100-150 tons of coal worth Rs 1.8-2 crore are stolen per night. Besides, some people are involved in illegal mining resembling the rat hole mining persisting in Meghalaya. On the whole, nearly 15,000 people are directly or indirectly engaged in illegal coal trade. The CIL authorities have discontinued deep/underground mining due to the risks involved. They also say that the process has ceased to be cost effective. Right now, coal is extracted only from two mines—Tikok and Tirap through open-cast mining. The total production of coal has gone down substantially in the recent years. However, local sources maintain that if corrective measures are undertaken, CIL could extract coal till 2025.

The steady decline of coal production and its resultant pitfalls have some what compelled thousands of people to look for greener pasture. The fast growing tea sector has absorbed most of them. According to an estimate, more than 12,000 people are currently involved in tea plantation, transportation of green tea leaves to the nearest factories and allied activities. In the last ten years, tea has come up as the key bread earning source for the people residing in the outskirts of Margherita, Ledo and Jagun. But compared to the surge in tea plantation, the number of processing units has not increased much. The bulk of the tea grown by new planters is sold to the large factories established in the colonial era since they offer better price for high quality tea leaves. The new generation tea processing units find it difficult to compete with the established tea factories. More over, they do not receive good quality tea leaves most of the time. Along with the small and medium tea growers, the new factory owners have urged the state government to set up tea auction centres either in Tinsukia or Dibrugarh. They believe that such an initiative would eventually boost the local tea industry. The Assam tea is reputed all over the world for its aromatic quality. Despite facing stiff challenges from China and Sri Lanka, the local tea industries are doing well and the demand for tea produced in Assam has not subsided.

The expansion of tea industry can be called eco-friendly whereas the current state of affairs in the coal sector is proving to be environmentally-hazardous. The persistence of open-cast mining and illegal coal trade has not only disturbed the ecological balance but also bio-diversity of this region. Some of the other environmental threats include illegal felling of trees and wild animals poaching. The corrupt state government officials, including those in the Forest Department and law enforcement agencies, fully appropriate the sale proceeds of boulders and sand found in the river banks. Such corrupt practices are in vogue in this locality for quite some time depriving the state government of due share of revenue.

About a decade back, the people of this locality hoped that the revival of the Stilwell Road would rejuvenate the economy. The 1736 km-long road connecting Ledo, the small frontier town of Assam, with Kunming city of China through the Patkai ranges of India and Myanmar, was built during the World War II to meet the logistical needs of the Allied forces. The Centre raised the issue of reviving the old road with the quasi-military regime of Myanmar on a number of occasions to boost people-to-people contacts and trade ties but did not receive any positive response. Currently, India is focusing on expanding border trade and improving connectivity with Myanmar along the borders in Manipur and Mizoram. So the question of reviving the road, which could have been a panacea for the people residing in Tinsukia district of Assam and Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh, has been shelved at least for the time being. Efforts are also made to attract entrepreneurs, traders and tourists by organising festivals like Dehing Patkai, Pangshu Pass and Namdapha etc. However, such efforts have fetched only limited success.

Margherita is now at the cross-roads. The people living in the areas that fall under Margherita legislative constituency are still dependent on the industries of the colonial period. The time has arrived to think about alternative development schemes which could supplement the age-old industries. The local MLA has presided over a number of developmental activities such as renovation of dilapidated roads, rural electrification, construction of school buildings, establishment of 100-beded civil hospital and up gradation of the town to the sub-divisional level and several other infrastructure building projects. The local residents discovered to their dismay that such efforts had been initiated only at the dawn of Twenty First century. Margherita did not witness any developmental work during 1947-98. The MLAs representing this constituency during this period have already gone to the oblivion. It requires concerted efforts from all quarters to rejuvenate the local economy. The sitting MLA has only initiated the process which was long over due. The support of local MP is also crucial for all round development of this hinterland. The need of the hour is to look for an out of box solution in order to revitalise the local economy.