Asansol/Purulia: The heat from the Narada bribery scandal and Saradha chit fund scam hasn’t yet died down, but already, West Bengal and its ruling party, Trinamool Congress, have been rocked by another alleged scam — this time related to the illegal mining and transportation of coal from lands belonging to the government-run Eastern Coalfields Limited in the western part of the state.
Powerful people, including Trinamool MP and Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee, state PWD & Law Minister Moloy Ghatak, and officials from the police and the ECL, have been questioned in connection with the scam which, according to the Central Bureau of Investigation, is worth Rs 1,900 crore.
At the centre of the alleged scam stands a man called Anup Maji alias Lala, a Class 8 dropout in his early 40s, who is accused of paying kickbacks to these powerful people to let him run his illegal operation. But on the ground, people who have known Maji, such as those from his village, refuse to accept these charges, and say he’s a social activist who, through his business, has done a lot of good for the people.
ThePrint accessed key documents, spoke to investigators, and travelled to the coal belt of Bengal, including Maji’s village in Purulia district, to ascertain the facts of this alleged scam.
Reached for a comment for this report, Anup Maji’s lawyer Amiya Chakraborti said: “This is a high profile case. I will not be able to comment on it.”
Trinamool leaders Abhishek Banerjee and Ghatak, meanwhile, insist that the reason they’ve been called in by the central agencies is “political vendetta by the Narendra Modi government”.
The allegations against Anup Maji
Bengal’s coal belt — spread across four districts (Paschim Bardhaman, Bankura, Birbhum and Purulia) and 32 police station areas — has been afflicted by theft and illegal mining for years, but the ECL lodged its first CBI complaint in November last year. This came after an inspection by its vigilance wing in May 2020 found “extensive illegal mining and transportation of coal” across the leasehold area in Paschim Bardhaman.
Six persons, including two general managers of ECL, its security chief and a private person, were named in the FIR lodged on 27 November 2020. The FIR mentioned Anup Maji as one of the “main organisers for most of the illegal mining at ECL area and transportation of illegally excavated and stolen coal”.
In all, the ECL filed 597 FIRs, and 28 people were arrested or detained over the course of financial year 2020-21.
An Income Tax (IT) Department search in Maji’s village Bhamuria in Purulia district led to the seizure of Rs 9 crore in cash, and a host of electronic documents.
ThePrint has accessed the IT Department’s post-search investigation report, in which it mentioned a kickback amount of Rs 1,300 crore, which had allegedly been given to top politicians and civil servants in the previous one and a half years. The report, which has been submitted to the IT Department’s central section for further investigation and assessment, also mentioned that Maji alias Lala’s unaccounted cash transactions added up to Rs 5,500 crore.
According to the report, the cash seized from his house was found lying in unlocked cupboards at his residence in Bhamuria village. The central agencies seized his computers, phones and all documents that his accountants maintained.
The report said he owns five companies — Sonis Thermal, Ispat Damodar, Maji Iron, Jayshree Ambey industries and Mark & Cliff — of which three are shell companies through which he allegedly laundered thousands of crores.
Maji dominates coal transport routes in Asansol, Bankura, Purulia, Birbhum and the neighbouring state of Jharkhand, and controls the supply of the highest-grade coal to at least 75 local steel and sponge iron units. He allegedly owns a fleet of at least 700 trucks for transporting illegally mined coal.
“Lala’s phone and his computer have code names for kickbacks. We have cracked the code-names of senior politicians and IPS officers. Lala’s statement corroborates with the facts,” alleged a second senior CBI official who is investigating the case.
A team of at least 11 accountants maintained Lala’s diaries of payments, profits and kickbacks, the official claimed.
The central agencies seized CCTV monitors from his residence and office in the village, and the monitors, they alleged, were connected to hundreds of CCTV cameras installed in and around the village and the approach road to keep a vigil on “suspicious” movements. The seized items were sent to the Central Forensic Science Laboratory in Gujarat, added sources in the IT department.
How the issue snowballed
Since the IT department’s report, the Enforcement Directorate has also joined the probe to find the money trail, and the central agencies are currently at different stages of investigation.
After Maji was interrogated several times, the political flashpoint in the case came when the CBI initially summoned Abhishek Banerjee’s wife Rujira for questioning in February, during the Bengal assembly election campaign.
Maji got protection against arrest from the Supreme Court in April. However, he needs to appear before the CBI as and when called.
There have been more such summonses since then, the most recent being when Abhishek was grilled for nine hours in the ED office in Delhi on 6 September, and called back within 24 hours. Law Minister Ghatak, who is the MLA for Asansol Uttar within the ‘coal belt’ region, was summoned by the ED on 3 September, and has been called again on 14 September. Two senior IPS officers — ADG CID Gyanwant Singh and DIG Midnapore range Shyam Singh — were summoned on 28 August. ThePrint’s attempts to reach them for their comments through calls, text messages and emails did not elicit a response till the time this report was published.
CBI sources told ThePrint that a list prepared by the central investigating agencies names of 24 senior police officers and two district magistrates as “suspects” in the alleged scam.
How illegal mining takes place
A senior ECL official explained to ThePrint, on the condition of anonymity, why the coal smuggling business is prevalent in the area, and why it runs the entire economy.
“The margin is God-like. The ECL sells high grade coal at around Rs 4,500 per tonne to the companies as the certified price. But small companies, which do not have coal linkages, need to buy coal through e-auction. The e-auction price is dynamic and it can go up to Rs 6,000-7,000 per tonne,” the official said.
“Anup Maji used to excavate coal through illegal methods of mining, and smuggle it from our plants. He used to sell this to the companies at Rs 2,000 per tonne — three times cheaper. The companies prefer to buy from the mafia because there is no change of variety or quality in the raw material,” the official claimed.
ThePrint travelled to Kajora colliery, home to ECL’s open cast coal mine, which is infamous for illegal mining and theft. The entire coal belt of Bengal is rich in high grade coal, which can be found just about 10 to 20 feet below the ground. Illegal miners use the ‘rat-hole’ technique to extract it — just a small hole is cut into the ground, and the coal is extracted through borewell-type instruments.
“We work for operators who pay money to us. ECL gives us wages, but the (illegal) private operators give more. We get Rs 500 per day if we succeed in extracting coal,” Lakshmi Tudu, a coal labourer, told ThePrint.
A senior official of Coal India Limited, the parent company of Eastern Coalfields, pointed out that extracting coal through these illegal methods carries huge risks for the villagers.
“There are reports of subsidence (sudden sinking of the ground) and fire. So many villagers get trapped inside as water gushes out at times. But the villagers continue to extract coal illegally, for money or due to fear (of the coal mafia),” the official said.
However, the ECL official quoted above claimed Maji’s operation was different.
“Lala bought excavators and JCBs (diggers) to illegally extract coal. His operations used to take place at night. Local police and some senior officials of the ECL are hand-in-glove with him. They have a huge stack of arms to intimidate, kidnap or kill people,” the official alleged.
A local legend, ‘social activist’ in Bhamuria
ThePrint also travelled to Anup Maji’s village, Bhamuria in Purulia district. This is the hub of his operations, though they are spread out over other districts too. He owns five companies, truck depots, over half-a-dozen houses, two luxury resorts and an international school in the region.
The resorts are called Garpanchkot Ecotourism Resort and Biharinath Eco Tourism resort, while the school is called Garpanchkot International School.
Maji is also said to have a fetish for exotic animals, and owns a farm, which has rare breeds of dogs and ducks worth around Rs 20 lakh, imported from Australia, investigators claimed.
CBI sources said Maji dropped out of school after Class 8, and started his career as a petty coal and equipment thief. But around 2015, he emerged as the coal mafia’s kingpin.
But locals in Bhamuria say he’s a “social activist”, who helps the poor by employing them in his companies and other business ventures. Any mention of ‘coal mafia’ irks the villagers.
The Bhamuria village panchayat is controlled by the Trinamool Congress; in fact, the state’s ruling party won all 10 gram panchayat seats in the area. However, the BJP won the Raghunathpur assembly constituency, of which Bhamuria is part.
The village is dominated by the same Maji Dalit community that Lala is a part of, and Kajal Maji, Trinamool’s local convener in the village, said Lala has worked with everyone.
“He has contributed to the village a lot. He is a social activist. But he has been framed in a case that is political in nature. The central agencies are run by (Narendra) Modi and (Amit) Shah. They are now framing our leader Abhishek (Banerjee),” said Kajal Maji.
When ThePrint visited Bhamuria, Kajal Maji was filling out paperwork for the Bengal government’s ‘Duare Sarkar’ (government at the doorstep) outreach programme at the village school.
Local BJP workers were also present at this spot. One of them, Babu Maji, dressed in a saffron shirt and white pants, was furious when asked about Lala. “You have come here, and will not return without trouble. Lala is not ‘coal mafia’. We are not into any coal business. We (Trinamool and BJP) work together,” he said.
Kajal Maji added: “You should cover our ‘Duare Sarkar’ camp and quietly leave the village. Do not try to inquire much about Lala.”
Some local residents also took photographs and a video of this correspondent, because they “needed to pass them on to their bosses”. Two persons were also sent to check the vehicle, bags and the correspondent’s press card.
Meanwhile, Law Minister Moloy Ghatak accused the Narendra Modi government, which controls the central agencies, of dragging politics into the case.
“Coal smuggling is nothing new. CPI(M) men used to do it earlier. We submitted so many complaints to the CBI then, but there was no action. Now, Modi wants to implicate Trinamool Congress leaders by hook or by crook. He wants to defame Mamata Banerjee, and that is why he is after Abhishek, our party’s general secretary,” he said.
“This is purely a political case. They will not be able to prove anything. It is just political vendetta,” he added.
After being quizzed for nine hours by the ED, Abhishek Banerjee too called the interrogation “political”. He said that the party would fight it out legally and politically.
“They are not able to fight us politically. That is the reason for the summons. I am not blaming the investigators, they are under pressure. They can bring all agencies together, ED, CBI, IT and SFIO. But we will not bow down. We will fight it out,” the Diamond Harbour MP said.
(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)