Bengal’s super fugitive coal dealers, Anup Majhi — Lala to his friends — and his deputy Joydeb Mondal, have been interrogated by a host of investigating agencies for their alleged involvement in illegal mining and operating fake companies to mask their dubious business as legitimate operations.
In the closing weeks of 2020, Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Enforcement Directorate (ED) and Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) raided Majhi’s 20 offices in Kolkata and a few offices in Dhanbad, Purulia and Asansol. The agencies claimed that they found documents linking both Majhi and Mondal to an illegal coal empire worth Rs 20,000 crore.
The two were on the run for almost 14 years, and escaped repeated police swoops since 2006. Every time the police came calling, they fled abroad, shuttling between Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Berlin, Munich, Geneva, London and Dubai.
But this time, cops from Dhanbad, led by SP Aseem Vikrant Minz, set up an interesting trap. Minz did not go after the duo but aimed for people working with Majhi and Mondal. Minz and his men created a fake traffic jam on Grand Trunk road, one of Asia’s oldest roads, which connects Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The cops waited for the lorries ferrying illegal coal from the mines in Asansol, Durgapur and Dhanbad. Once the vehicles came close, they arrested the drivers and cleaners and confiscated the vehicles with the cargo.
The drivers of the lorries spilled the beans and gave details of the illegal mining operations run by Majhi and Mondal. The following evening, Majhi and Mondal were raided by over 50 officers from the three investigating agencies, and properties and cash worth Rs 40 crore were seized.
Majhi reportedly has confessed — in a written statement — that he routinely paid large chunks of cash to influential politicians in Bengal so that his operations could run without any trouble. And that the duo has been doing this for over two decades.
The confession allegedly states that they dealt with a large number of politicians, both at the district level and also at the high command of the political parties. “We are still checking their books of accounts, computer records. It is estimated that they paid a little over Rs 100-150 crore per month to some top politicians in Bengal and also family members of these politicians,” the sources said.
In Krishna Koyal’s footsteps
The meteoric rise of the two is ascribed by many in Bengal to the downfall of another illegal coal dealer, Krishna Murari Koyal. Billu to his friends, Koyal fell out of favour with the State’s top politicians last year following his arrest in January, 2019 in Kanska, a hamlet in Durgapur, on charges of keeping firearms without a licence.
Until his arrest, Koyal was a powerful person and even accompanied a business delegation of the Bengal government to Singapore to seek foreign investment. Koyal faces a host of pending criminal cases, including coal pilferage and illegal coal mining. He was reportedly associated with illegal iron ore mining and the real estate business, and was known for funding films in Tollywood.
Koyal’s departure brought Majhi and Mondal to the forefront though the two had been in the business for long.
The sources said both Majhi and Mondal grew up in Asansol’s Salanpur area. Lala, aged about 42 years, hailed from a very poor family of four brothers and three sisters in Parbelia, a small town of about 5,000 persons in the Neturia Block of the Raghunathpur Subdivision of West Bengal’s Purulia district.
Majhi started his life as a fish vendor in his native town. But he wanted to make it big in Parbelia, a coal mining area. He raised some cash and, along with four friends, formed a coal briquette manufacturing factory. Incidentally coal briquettes are used as a source of fuel in the suburban towns of Purulia. The briquette factory was actually a stepping stone and a front for his more nefarious activities, which involved stealing coal from the Parbelia Underground Coal Mine, under the Sodepur Area of Eastern Coalfields Limited.
The coal-bearing seams in and around Parbelia are rich with high-grade long flame coal, which is in great demand all over India and fetches a premium. These coal seams have the distinct feature of not running very deep underground. Dissatisfied with just stealing coal, Majhi began his own illegal Open Cast Mine hidden in the forest of Raghunathpur. Soon, a sizeable number of local boys joined up with Majhi, making him a local hero.
Politics makes for strange bedfellows. And political leaders soon made a beeline for him as a source for their political funding. In return, they provided Majhi with legal and administrative protection. Worse, non-payment of Cess and GST were glossed over. Majhi, locals say, was initially supported by Bansa Gopal Chowdhury, who was then the CPM MP from Asansol.
Majhi transported coal all over West Bengal and beyond. CBI sources claim that he carried cash in heavy suitcases in his Scorpio to the homes of top politicians in Kolkata.
Soon Majhi overtook Raju Jha of Durgapur and Jaideb Mondal, who were then the uncrowned coal kings. Mondal joined Majhi and started working with him.
Hitting the big time
Today, Majhi is known to own 22 industrial units, including Sponge Iron Manufacturing units, Rolling Mills, Silicate factories and Hard Coke manufacturing units in and around Durgapur and Asansol. He also owns two holiday resorts and a number of properties in Kolkata, and Delhi.
Majhi grew big, really big. Pressure from top politicians to bring in more funds made him strike a strange allegiance. He teamed up with Enamul Haque, the infamous cattle smuggler, and began using his network in North Bengal to transport illegal coal to Murshidabad, Malda, Dinajpur and beyond, to Bangladesh.
Besides coal, Majhi is also known to be dealing with sand quarried illegally from the Damodar and Ajay River beds.
Eventually, Majhi and Mondal took control and started dominating the much-weakened clan of illegal coal miners in the region. “The veterans were slowly eased out of the business like newcomers taking over operations of ageing dons,” said one of the sources.
The two started their operations in the Durgapur-Asansol belt and also expanded their operations to Dhanbad. They were deep into coal, and considered dangerous men in the coal belt of Purulia, Durgapur, Dhanbad and Asansol, with offices spread all over India. They have over 60,000 people on their rolls, paid salaries with proper bank transfers in the first week of every month.
Political mileage as polls loom
Home minister Amit Shah has thanked the agencies for zeroing in on the two coal and sand dealers. Shah expressed his congratulations during a presser for a “very important operation”.
BJP general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya, the party in-charge for poll-bond West Bengal, told that coal and sand mafia as well as cattle smugglers in West Bengal were the new funders of political parties after owners of ponzi companies shut shop. “There is a huge amount of cash involved; a portion of this cash is routinely sent abroad through hawala. This illegal trade needs to be stopped.”
The TMC denies the charge. The raids on the coal dealers drew fierce criticism from Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who expressed her anguish at the searches, saying the local cops in Bengal were kept totally in the dark by officials of the three investigating agencies.
The TMC’s denial notwithstanding, illegal mining continues unabated.
Senior police officers in Dhanbad told that the duo bested their rivals in a bloody power struggle in the mid-1990s and had a history of extortion and murder.
The two, claimed the cops, ran their business like global data centres. Drivers of lorries ferrying illegal coal and sand carried smart cards that would help them avoid check posts and cross over from Durgapur to Kolkata with complete police protection. Every evening, an estimated 250-300 lorries carrying illegal coal and sand would jam the highway. During the day, it would take approximately three-and-a-half hours to reach Kolkata from Durgapur by car.
From the evening onwards, the same journey would take over six hours because the lorries would take over the highway.
“There is coal and sand in the lorries and there is cash that would travel in cars to Kolkata with total police protection and under the watch of men employed by Majhi and Mondal,” a top coal industry source told.
Roaring illegal trade
So, how big is the operation of this illegal coal business?
There are about 3,500 illegal coal mines in the Asansol-Raniganj area, with at least 55,000 people directly employed, and another 40,000 getting indirect employment. The daily turnover of this illegal business runs up to approximately Rs 200 crore. This is considered to be a parallel economy in the industrial town of Asansol and its surrounding area.
The illegal business continues to yield high profit though the benefits are hardly passed on to the miners, who risk their lives to keep the business running without any technical expertise or technical support. The official rate of coal, with all taxes and cess, is around Rs 10,000 per tonne, whereas the illegal coal — popularly known as Disco Coal — sells for Rs 6,000-7,500 per tonne. Illegal mining is said to be rampant in Barabani, Jamuria, Raniganj and Pandaveswar in Asansol.
The large stretch of the Raniganj-Asansol coal belt is in the control of the coal mafia. These are mines abandoned by Eastern Coalfields, a subsidiary of the Kolkata-based Coal India Limited (CIL). It is still a mystery as to why coal is not mined from these abandoned pits by subsidiaries of Coal India. On paper, CIL maintains it is not financially viable to mine coal from these mines because the risks are just too high. But the mafia does not care about the risks and routine deaths that rock their operations. So, coal comes easy to them.
At the heart of this business is Majhi, whose current turnover is easily over Rs 15,000 crore. CBI and ED officials said they were helped by an insider, a Majhi hitman who turned informant and detailed his rise to power and the forging of an alliance with Mondal in the 1990s. The duo bribed the police across Jharkhand, Bengal and Kolkata heavily, and the cops turned a blind eye to the coal lorries travelling from the mines to Siliguri — the gateway to the seven northeastern States — as well as to other parts of Bengal, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, even Rajasthan.
“They have the cash, political support; they wield tremendous power,” said a CBI official involved in the raid. The official said the two would invest their cash into movies, mini steel plants, brick kilns and gamble in casinos in Nepal, Hong Kong, and Thailand, even organising religious festivals and funding local football clubs.
Mondal had been arrested by the cops way back in 2011 but managed bail. When he was arrested in the heart of Kolkata, he had a crore of rupees in cash on him, as well as a few self-loading rifles and cartridges. He told the cops the cash was for some petty expenses and the guns were for his protection because coal mining was a dangerous business. The cops claimed Mondal also supplied forearms and cartridges from Bihar’s Munger district to political parties in Bengal.
The cops claimed Mondal, when arrested, had come to Kolkata to fix an arms deal. Mondal, wanted in several coal smuggling cases being probed by the State police and the CBI, was earlier hiding in Malaysia, Singapore and Switzerland. Once close to the CPM, he was the prime accused in the murder of Trinamool Congress worker Akshay Bauri in Asansol during the 2009 Lok Sabha polls. He switched camps after the TMC came to power.
Eventually, Mondal went underground after cops in Jharkhand and Bengal started targeting the coal mafia following the daylight murder of realtor and former smuggler Ram Lakhan Yadav and his two aides in Asansol in June, 2011.
Income Tax officials claimed the duo had over a thousand suitcase companies with addresses in the Chowringhee office complex in the heart of Kolkata. Cash was routinely re-routed by these companies before landing in the accounts of family members of influential politicians so that Majhi’s illegal business could continue unabated.
But now, pressure has been mounting on these illegal coal dealers. Bengal is headed for a crucial assembly elections. These arrests, claim political cognoscenti, are crucial because the mafia routinely funded political parties.
(This is a reprint from Moneycontrol).
Shantanu Guha Ray is a Wharton-trained journalist and award-winning author. He lives in Delhi with his wife and two pets. He won the 2018 Crossword award for his book, Target, which probed the NSEL payment crisis.