Evolution of Coal Politics and Future in Assam

Written by Unmilan Kalita

Coal has been a central fulcrum around which material transformation of human history has evolved since the inception of the Industrial Revolution. (Brown and Samuel, 2017) The legacy of coal lies not only in fuelling steam engines, running turbines, powering industries and generating electricity but also in formulating particular variants of political and economic power. This mutually dependent dynamics between political power and an economic fortune, both guided and fuelled by coal has led to the term ‘hydrocarbon politics.’

Historically, coal has underpinned patterns of capital accumulation and uneven development, but at the same time, provided the conditions for workers to develop solidarities, and effectively pursue democratic claims. In the ever-progressing world of today, growing public concern over climate change has compounded aversion to coal, for its adverse effects on health, wellbeing, and damage to local ecologies and a shift into nonconventional sources of energy. Drawing on insights from anthropology and critical geography, coal’s hybridity, contingent politics, and the diverse forms of value with which it is associated can be analysed as opined by Brown and Samuel.

A year ago, an awareness trend called #SaveDehingPatkai spurred across all social media platforms, which was a dissenting voice against Centre’s grant of a lease to Coal India Limited, a government PSU major, to mine legally in the area of Saleki, which comes under the Dehing Patkai Biosphere Area; and therefore, the resulting and the potential harm that it would unleash upon the entire ecology is an environmentally disturbing factor.

The protests against the mining of coal are not new, and assessing these protests navigates us to analyse the intersections between hydrocarbon modernity and the related process of neoliberal capitalism. Once extracted from the ground, coal is no longer a ‘natural, organic resource’ but a ‘privatized commodity’, which is converted into standardized, appropriable and derivable units, which is then incorporated into the process of capital accumulation. This act of translation alienates coal from nature, by concealing its geological origins and the process that it has undergone. Coal’s status as a concentrated, energy-dense and geographically mobile form of fuel is the most important factor in its adoption over water power or charcoal during the Industrial Revolution. If we look into the history of commercial coal mining in Assam, the same can be assessed.

During the initial half of the reign of the British East India Company, there were some attempts of extracting coal commercially, but industrialists preferred to import coal from Britain to ensure a steady supply. With the development of inland transportation in India, a few local coal deposits around Western Bengal were being used to meet the demand. Thereafter, a ‘Tea Committee’ to investigate the possibility of cultivation of tea in India was issued by Lord Bentinck in 1834 which recommended the establishment of ‘tea nurseries’ in Upper Assam.[1] The lineage of Assam coal starts from this point. This brought the question of communication of produce from the estates to the receiving centres in West Bengal. That time witnessed three existing land routes that linked Bengal with Assam, the first connected Murshidabad with Goalpara via Mauldah and Rungpore, the second connected Dacca with Goalpara via Jamalpur and Sigimari which was impassable during the rains, and the third was Sylhet with Gauhati via Cherrapunji and Mophlung but the Kassya hills made it extremely difficult to transport the bulk of burden.[2]

With the increase in the volume of production on one hand and primitive and inadequate roads on the other, road transport became heavily troublesome for commutation. Brahmaputra, with its perennial character offered an excellent means of communication throughout the year, yet the ‘men-powered’ traditional boats failed to cater to the growing requirements of the expanding industries of Assam due to its time-consuming and cumbersome pace of communication. Steamships were introduced, but they too had their own anomalies. Due to their irregularity the steamer service was abandoned and became defunct from 1858 onwards.[3]

The Tea Industry needed a potion for its survival and expansion — a system of improved internal communication connecting tea gardens with major river ports. It was at this juncture that the question of laying down railway lines was considered. Apart from linking the tea plantations with the important river ports and transporting the bulky produce, the railways would also result in certain collateral gains, as it would accelerate the State’s expanding economy by commercially exploiting resources that were hitherto explored and unexplored alike.

Makum coal field was known to the English as far back as 1825. Geologists had discovered mineral oil at Naharpung near Jaipur (in Assam) in 1866.

These coal mines, though located and known and full of economic potential were left unexploited due to lack of transportation facilities. Now, these potent oil fields became economically viable to exploit and use for commercial purpose. The role of a civil surgeon who went by the name of John Berry White played a prominent role in discovering coal nodes across the swathes of Upper Assam. The first colliery was opened by M/S ‘Assam Railways and Trading Company’ in 1882 at Ledo in Upper Assam. These coal mines compounded the growth of Assam tea industries apart from being an important event in the coal mining history of the North Eastern Region. Thereafter, the coalfields in Assam expanded into four major zones, namely Baragolai-Tikak, Ledo-Tirap, Tipong Colliery in Makum, and lastly Jeypore-Dilli coalfield near Namrup. That has been the history.

Natural biodiversity is a fragile constitute of our environment. There are instances in Arunachal Pradesh where highly endangered species like the holoparasitic cousin of Rafflesia, Sapria himalayana which is located near the Yasong in Lohit valley, have disappeared because of the construction of the road from Hayuliang to Walong.[4] The habitat of Agapetes, an epiphytic orchid, and Pleione macculata was severely impacted by developmental activities.[5] The construction of the Aizwal to Lengpui road had similar consequences. Leaving aside the crony contractors and the Ministry of Forest, others can now easily gauge the harm and destruction that developmental activities incur on nature and ecology. Meghalaya, where a primitive strategy of rat-hole mining is used, has witnessed the con effects of rampant mining.[6] The dumping of coal has caused air and soil pollution. Water in coal mining areas has been found to be highly acidic, with low dissolved oxygen.

By critiquing the mining in this context, the extraction of natural resource for various developmental purpose is not critiqued, provided the means-ends dichotomy of the process is both ecologically sustainable and economically feasible. Its high time for us to understand energy not only as a ‘resource’ but as a social relation embedded within the ‘geometries of power’ under capitalism. Globalization has resulted in new regimes of accumulation, and neo-liberal restructuring has blurred the boundaries of political and economic power. Coal economies are intricately interlinked with local and national politics of resources and identities of overlapping domains. Now, to choose between a completely utilitarian, ‘end’-guided stand and a well-assessed, deontologically analysed sustainable stand — is what we have to make our government compel to do. The choice is in our hands.


[1] Hunter, William Wilson. A Statistical Account of Assam. Trubner & Company. 1879. Page no: 262.

[2] M’Cosh, John. Topography of Assam. GH Huttmann, Bengal Military Orphan Press. Page no: 9.

[3] Borpujari, H.K. Assam in the Day of the Company, 1826-1858. Lawyer’s Book Stall, 1963. Page no: 253-255.

[4] Chatterjee, S. Biodiversity Conservation Issues of Northeast India. The International Forestry Review, Vol 10, No. 2. Page no. 8. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43740345

[5] Baruah, Ditee Moni. The Refinery Movement in Assam. Economic and Political Weekly 46, no. 1 (2011): 63-69. Accessed May 27, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27917990.

[6] Brown, Benjamin, and Samuel J. Spiegel. Resisting coal: Hydrocarbon politics and assemblages of protest in the UK and Indonesia. Geo-forum: 85 (2017): 101-111.


Unmilan Kalita is an undergraduate student of Political Science in Ramjas College, University of Delhi. He is interesred in political history, international relations, comparative studies, political aesthetics, Assamese literature and culture and politics associated with the tribes of Northeast India. He has been an avid quizzer and also has a deep interest in Indian classical and folk music. He is currently the President of the executive body of Northeast Cell, Ramjas College.

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