Getting the Stamp of Coalfield

The post of DOS (G) was created on major divisions on IR in 1958 to reduce the workload of DOSs and leave them free to focus on operations. On Eastern Railway, these posts were created on Howrah, Asansol and Dinapore divisions. My immediate predecessor was Ranjit Mathur. My responsibilities included dealing with accidents and safety, planning and construction of sidings for coal and other industries, allotment of plots for stacking and loading coal in sidings owned by railways, known as loading accommodation in railway parlance, and maintenance of traffic stores for supply of essential equipment to stations and running staff on the division.

BLC Sastri, who was the chairman of the committee that had tested us at the end of our training, was the DS Asansol. Sastri was an experienced operating officer. He considered himself as an expert on coalfield operations, and like other Eastern Railway officers looked down on officers drawn from other railways. He belonged to a rich family from Visakhapatnam and had a Law degree. He never let us forget it, saying he did not need the job; he could always live on his property and practice law. His father-in-law had been a judge in Madras High Court. Both he and his wife Shakuntala were very nice to us and it was easy to work with him. He would rely on his branch officers and accept all our drafts with only minor corrections. It put a great responsibility on us, because we had to ensure correctness and accuracy in the correspondence, lest the DS got a bad name.

AK Bhaduri was DOS (T), TD Bhatia was DCS and MC Das IRSME was DPO. MK Sinha, DME (Power) was a Jamalpurite from Bihar, with a rustic bawdy humour. He would talk in a loud voice on the phone and laugh in a high note that frightened my little son Srikant. I had much to do with him in later years. BP Agarwal, an IRSME officer of my batch was DEO Asansol. In our first meeting, Agarwal passed some unsavoury remarks about operating officers, based on his experience with Bhaduri and others. He must have found me different and we became very good friends. MK Varma, a senior IRTS officer from Lucknow replaced MC Das as DPO a few months later. In April 1963, he organised an exhibition during Railway Week. He got himself so much publicity and appreciation that GP Bhalla, the General Manager, posted him as PRO, Eastern Railway. He was also the Divisional Sports Officer. When he left, I took over this extracurricular activity.

There was an abundance of high-grade coal in the Asansol Division. With an average daily loading of close to 2000 wagons per day (each carrying 22+ tonnes), Asansol Division had the highest originating tonnage on Indian Railways ahead of Adra, Dhanbad and Bilaspur Divisions. Singrauli, Korba, Talcher and Mahanadi coalfields were yet to be developed. Over 300 sidings spread across the division, used for loading coal by thrice that number of despatchers, catered to the needs of the coal industry. Coal pilots based in four major depots served these sidings for supplying empty wagons and drawing out the loaded wagons for onward despatch to their respective destinations spread across the country. These sidings took off from the main lines or from service sidings, often in opposite directions. The coal pilots had to negotiate curvatures, gradients, bridges and culverts, and level crossings on important roads including the Grand Trunk Road. Working on the coal pilots called for knowledge and experience. During our training on coal pilots, we were fascinated by the skill, dedication and confidence with which drivers, guards and shunting staff working in the coal pilots carried out their tasks in all kinds of weather.

Most of the mines were underground. Large Open Cast Projects (OCP) were just being launched. On both sides of the track the landscape was dotted with head frames, the triangular structures that helped raise coal from underground mines and provided access for men and materials to the coal deposits. In the absence of a centralized source of electric power, part of the coal produced by the mines was used to produce steam to run generators that produced enough electricity for all the needs of the mines, including coal breaking, haulage and raising, and ventilation of the underground workings Steam from boilers and smoke from burning coal polluted the atmosphere. Black dust covered everything. In Dhanbad, during my training, I had wondered why KE Graham AOS (T), always dressed in white, washed his hands with soap before visiting the toilet. I realized later that his hands were blackened with the dust on his table, the files and anything else he handled. He washed them to avoid smudging his dress.

North of the railway tracks between Andal and Sitarampur, British miners found low ash coal in thick seams at a shallow depth, in contrast with the thin seams they were used to back home. EIR constructed a loop line connecting Andal and Sitarampur, via Baraboni to exploit this deposit. The richest of the deposits were on a sixteen km long chord line connecting Topsi and Baraboni (TB Chord). Five coal pilots served TB Chord from Sitarampur and Andal picking up between them over 300 wagons of coal per day.

East Indian Railway introduced a unique way of dealing with the collieries on TB Chord. There was an exchange yard at the midpoint of the Chord with an unmanned single roomed building called a goomty. Coal pilots from Sitarampur and Andal used the exchange yard to park coal loaded wagons drawn from sidings worked by them. Pilots from Sitarampur would sort the wagons separately for up (towards Delhi) and down (towards Howrah) directions, leave the wagons meant for the down direction and return to Sitarampur with wagons meant for the up direction, along with similar wagons left in the yard by Andal based pilots. Likewise, pilots from Andal left wagons for up direction in the exchange yard and carried only down direction wagons to Andal. The guards of the coal pilots left relevant papers including consists of wagons parked in the yard in the unmanned goomty.

With the exception of collieries owned by railways for producing coal for their locomotives, coal production was entirely in the private sector until the government formed the National Coal Development Corporation in 1956. NCDC’s operations were then confined to the Karanpura coalfields near Patratu in Dhanbad Division of Eastern Railway. Coal producers in Asansol Division ranged from big companies like Bengal Coal Company, owning a number of large collieries, to those owning just one or two small collieries that could produce less than a 100 tonnes of coal per day. The larger companies had their own sidings and could offer a full train load, consisting of 70 four-wheeled wagons, at a time. But the smaller ones could offer no more than a few wagonloads for loading per day. Such companies were allowed to load wagons placed on sidings owned by the railway at specified points. Owners of coal mines intending to despatch coal by rail submitted requests for allotment of loading accommodation to the divisional office backed by figures of production. The information was sent to Coal Mining Adviser (CMA), Dhanbad for vetting. On receipt of CMA’s recommendation orders were issued allotting accommodation. This was the authority for allotment and supply of wagons for loading coal to the applicant.

In most of the mines, coal was excavated manually using pickaxes sledgehammers. Blocks of coal were carried by baskets and loaded into trolleys that were pushed to the shafts where they were brought by lifts to the surface. Some mines used coal cutting machines. One of the first mines to introduce large scale mechanisation was the Kunustoria colliery near Topsi, owned by Bengal Coal Company. We watched in awe as the electrically operated hammers of the newly installed “Continuous Miner” pounded the coal seams underground and the resultant blocks of coal were collected automatically by the machine’s “gathering arms” and loaded on to a conveyer that brought the coal to the surface for dumping. For expeditious despatch of the coal from Kunustoria, Eastern Railway constructed a new siding to accommodate a full train load.

Expansion of coal production was envisaged in the second five-year plan but there was delay in implementation due to the war with China. A survey was conducted by a committee, consisting of a mining engineer and a mechanical engineer to assess the capability of collieries to undertake mechanization of loading operations. I was asked to accompany the committee while they visited coal mines on Asansol Division. We covered all the mines in the Division in just a few days, traveling in a Hindustan Ambassador car, which was amazingly versatile in negotiating even the most inhospitable terrain. By the end of the survey I got a better insight into the working of coal mines than I would have if I had been confined to my routine work. Moreover, I got to know the areas like the palm of my hand.

Durgapur Steel Plant had just commenced production. An exchange yard for the steel plant was constructed adjacent to Andal yard. Major remodelling of Andal, Asansol and other yards was in progress. Railway Electrification works were in progress simultaneously. To meet the needs of additional traffic new sidings were under construction. All these activities brought additional responsibility on the operating department. Detailed working rules for operating trains on electrified sections had to be prepared and operating staff had to be trained to follow these rules. Station and yard layout of many stations and signalling cabins in the electrified area were changed to suit electrification. Station Working Rules (SWR) of these operating units had to be revised. The work lagged behind for want of adequate number of Traffic Inspectors. At my request HK Bannerjee, Dy Chief Engineer (RE) agreed to provide for a post of Traffic Inspector (Working Rules) in the RE estimate to carry out this additional workload.

Divisional stores took care of essential equipment like hand signal lamps, lanterns and detonators – used as warning signals – and had a small workshop for undertaking repairs to lamps and furniture. Many stations lacked electrical connections and depended on kerosene oil lamps for station lighting as well as signal lighting. Semaphore signals were still in use even in electrified sections.

Mathur lived in a bungalow that was originally occupied by the Division al Superintendent. It had a large compound which included a pond. The compound was taken over for expansion of the railway yard and the pond was filled up. The DS moved to a smaller bungalow and the old one was partitioned for allotment to two officers and the guest house of the DS was allotted to a third. Ranjit occupied the larger portion and since he was a bachelor my batch mate Vir Saksena, who was posted as DCS Dhanbad, shared the bungalow with him. When Ranjit left, the portion was allotted to me and I allowed Vir to live in one room until he found other quarters. We accepted Vir's offer to get our food cooked by his cook until the arrival of our things.

Once we settled down, Indu felt obliged to call him over for a meal. I told her that Vir was a big man with a muscular, athletic body who ate like a horse. I doubted her ability to satisfy his voracious apetite. I recounted to her his eating habits in Staff College. He insisted on having only lean people like me at his table because of his monstrous apetite. He would fill his plate with a heap of rice and top it by overturning the casseroles of dal, vegetables or whatever and gobble up the food as we watched. For dessert he would empty a bottle of jam on his ice cream and ask for more.

But Indu insisted and I gave in and invited Vir. I advised Indu to make only North Indian dishes to suit his palate. She made a lot of food and spread it on the table for him. When he saw the food, Vir seemed to be disappointed. “Arre Ramarao, what is this?” he said, “I eat this kind of food all the time. I was looking forward to some spicy South Indian food. You know hot pickles, gun powder, etc.” Indu felt embarrassed. She had made no South Indian dish that could be served to Vir. I suggested that she offer him the lime pickles she had made recently. She also had some ready-to-fry chillies, soaked in curds and sun dried. Vir welcomed these items and asked how we consumed them. I told him that we mix the pickles in rice and add ghee to stanch the spice and that we bite into the fried chillies while eating dal or curds mixed with rice. He filled his plate with a heap of rice and overturned the bottle of pickle on it as well as all the ghee from the ghee dispenser. He mixed them all up and began eating in big mouthfuls, occasionally biting into the fried chillies. He swallowed the food like a rakshasa, his lips lined red with the oil from the pickle, clucking and slurping, as the hot spices burned his tongue, his mouth and his throat.

Indu and I were concerned about what this heavy intake of unaccustomed diet of spices would do to Vir's digestion. I cautioned him but he dismissed me saying that nothing could affect him and that he was enjoying the food. I persuaded him to take a large helping of curd rice to lace his innards and save them from getting corroded. He left after thanking Indu for what he called an unforgettable repast. It turned out to be unforgettable indeed, as we were to find out soon. His room was next to our bedroom and it had an attached toilet. All night long we heard the flushing of the toilet and we knew Vir was in trouble.

I hailed him the next morning to check on his health and true enough his bowels had been running and he looked tired. He came to our place to call his wife who was still in Liluah. When he got through, he said to her, “Kumud, see what Mrs Ramarao has done to me.” He went on to narrate the previous day's experience but said the food was delicious and that she must get the recipes from Mrs Ramarao.


More by :  Ramarao Annavarapu

Top | Memoirs

Views: 3459      Comments: 4

Comment Coal was truly the motive power in those days. Who can forget the whiff of engine smoke as he stood under the blazing sun beside the line in a coal yard!

Here's a memoir than conveys the very essence of India's steam age. Explore the mines of the eastern coal belt, walk thru the yards and sidings built, ride aboard a coal pilot, take a peek into the stores which stocked hand lamps, and learn how station working rules had to be reframed...

This essay is essential reading for the steam buff.

Ravindra Bhalerao
14-Feb-2020 03:12 AM

Comment I have gone through all the instalments. An amazing alchemy of memories, macro and micro level knowledge and lucid expression in English which can claim to be literature of first order- an account which sounds like my own.
My elder brother, this brings to my mind what Shakespeare said about Cleopatra:-
Age cannot wither her,nor
Custom stale
Her infinite variety

Mahendra Kumar Misra
11-Nov-2019 22:15 PM

Comment a very lucid narration of the work in coal field areas. historical perspective to coal production is commendable. the meal offered to the colleague from the north adds spice to the narrative which is all about work.

09-Nov-2019 13:17 PM

Comment Interesting.Life on Eastern was tough but it was rich and very satisfying.Vir lived and worked on his own terms and even Johari saheb couldn’t make him work.

09-Nov-2019 11:00 AM

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