- Kaolin or China clay remains a largely untapped mineral resource in West Bengal even as mining and processing activities raise questions on its impact on the environment, human health and rights of the workers.
- Though clay mining is being done for decades in districts such as Birbhum in West Bengal, it has continued without following measures for ensuring the protection of the environment and the people.
- Local communities complain about impacts to health, water and farmlands but are forced to live with the conditions, as the mining sector gives them direct or indirect employment.
Rabi Bagdi, a man in his mid-30s who has a family of five to run, moves out of his home at Kabilpur village in West Bengal for work at a ‘China clay’ grinding unit in Khoria, about three kilometres away, wearing clean clothes. He returns with a layer of white powder covering his face, hair, body, and clothes.
Asked about his work atmosphere, employment benefits, or health impacts, he looked puzzled and hesitant, even as a thin cloud of white powder is coming out of the pulverizer machine at one of the grinding units – an apparently ominous background to Bagdi’s thin frame on a muddy and slippery road outside the campus.
People who know Bagdi said he is a casual worker who gets paid Rs. 180 per day for an eight-hour shift even as the minimum wage for unskilled labourers in the manufacturing industry has been fixed at Rs. 296 per day by the state government. However, Bagdi refused to comment on anything. In fact, the unit where he works has no workers’ union either. They are mostly casual employees and hence enjoy no protection and benefits like provident fund and gratuity.
The grinding unit is part of Patel Nagar Minerals Private Limited, one of India’s oldest surviving China clay mining and processing units, which was incorporated in 1955. It is the only unit from the state that made it to the list of top 10 kaolin producers in the country in 2012-13.
China clay or kaolin, also called white clay, in crude and processed forms, is used in various industries like cement, rubber, paper, ceramic, glass, paint and plastic, each industry requiring different grades of it. West Bengal has roughly one-sixth of India’s kaolin reserve but accounted for only 2.92 percent of India’s total kaolin production during 2010-11, 2011-12, and 2012-13. This is in contrast to the scene in the 1990s when the state accounted for 0.98 million tonnes, or 14.72 percent, of India’s total 6.6 million tonne kaolin production in the nine years between 1990-91 and 1998-99. Evidently, Gujarat, Karnataka, Rajasthan and Kerala moved ahead as Bengal lagged behind.
The industry in West Bengal is concentrated in the Birbhum district, with Mohammad Bazar community development block at the centre. The village Khoria (or Kharia), which sits at the heart of it, got its name from Khori, which is what the local people call China clay.
Seventeen pulverizer machines operate in Mohammad Bazar, most of them in villages of Khoria and Komarpur, an area also dotted with large pits dug for open-cast China clay mining. Patel Nagar Minerals and Industries Pvt. Ltd. alone holds at least four mining leases, covering an area of 228 acres, while its associated units, N.P. Minerals and Patel Nagar Refractories Pvt. Ltd., operate more mining and processing units, including a calcination unit that started operations in 2017. This group is owned by the Ghosh family, which also has two legislators – Nitai Pada Ghosh from the Congress party in 1972-77 and his son, Swapan Kanti Ghosh, from the Trinamool Congress party during the 2011-16 period.
The workers are mostly in the age group of 18-45 and are from these two villages along with the neighbouring ones like Maldiha, Ganeshpur, Mohammad Bazar, Rajyadharpur, Kabilpur, and Angargaria. The majority of the workers are from the Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) communities. During monsoon, the mining and washery operations are mostly halted but the work at grinding units goes on nonstop, in three shifts of eight hours each, with 12-15 persons working in each shift at each unit.
According to N.P. Mineral’s proposal for mining on a 17.84-acre land plot (at Khoria village), “To attain the guideline standards all the dust-generating areas will have dust suppression systems to contain the fugitive dust within the limits of the plant.” It also said, “zero discharge will be attempted to minimise water pollution so that there is no impact on local water resources.”
A government official, who did not want to be named, said that all mining and processing units need to undertake similar measures. But Mongabay-India, during a visit, witnessed dust-covered roads and fields. It was even inside the houses beyond the industrial area. Villagers also complained of wastewater spillage contaminating the local water bodies.
“We need to clear layers of clay dust from inside our home every day. I also suffer from some breathing difficulties,” said sexagenarian Dulal Chandra Mandal, a resident of Kharia.
Asked if he ever complained to any authority, Mandal said, “Whom to complain to? Would I get any support from anyone? I will only antagonise those who earn from these units.”
According to Biswajit Mukherjee, a former chief law officer of the state environment department and the state pollution control board, ‘a primitive exploitative system’ runs in the China clay mining sector. “No one cares about environmental impact and workers’ rights. Hardly a law related to environmental protection and workers’ rights apply there,” he told Mongabay-India.