The blaze reportedly sparked at an illegal coal pit barely 500 feet from Asansol’s Topsi community, shrouding the area within minutes and necessitating narrow escapes by affected residents.
According to a report in the Times of India, police were rushed in to pacify locals who complained of suffocation and the continuing illegal mining activities in the region.
The illegal mine at Topsi had been filled and dozed by Coal India subsidiary Eastern Coalfields but was reopened and exposed to the fire hazard of open air by rogue miners.
Though illegal mining in India more commonly involves iron ore, a coal shortage likely to grow to more than 140 million tonnes by the end of the fiscal year has recently propelled the government to investigate the criminal activity.
Coal India earlier this month announced it would appoint a consultant to help check looting at its mines in West Bengal (where Asansol is) and its neighboring province of Jharkhand.
“There have been reports of illegal mining, theft and pilferage from the areas of Eastern Coalfields, Bharat Coking Coal and Central Coalfields,” Coal India chairman and managing director S Narsing Rao told The Economic Times.
“We wish to take corrective action and the appointment of a consultant is a step in that direction.”
Inefficient administration, threats from extremist groups and collusion of officials in permitting illegal mines have combined to create a rampant problem in a country often criticized for failing to transfer its mineral wealth to the poorer classes.
The total worth of minerals produced in Indian mines in 2010-11 has been estimated at $35 billion.