We discover a feeling of a loss of El Dorado on board the Chakradharpur-Barbil-Puri Intercity Express chugging out of Barbil, the centre of Odisha’s mining hinterland that has gone quiet since a scam doused the boom in 2009.
It’s a pleasant Monday morning at Barbil, the first railway station in Odisha if one is travelling from Jharkhand down to Bhubaneswar via Keonjhar. My train is the 18415 Up Chakradharpur-Barbil-Puri Intercity Express. It’s a familiar blue train, the railway grime deposited on its window sills, bars and awnings giving this the feel of a familiar Indian journey. There are only a handful of passengers on the platform, including a couple of teenagers.
The youngsters are a surprise. This is not the backpack trail. Barbil is the heart of Odisha’s mine country. It’s the centre of a hinterland that is reputed to have the fifth largest deposits of iron ore and manganese ore in the world. It used to be a major source of revenue for both the central and state governments.
However, this morning, there’s no evidence of boom town prosperity around the railway station. Barring a couple of tea stalls and betel leaf kiosks, there’s nothing to buy or sell here.
“This has been the scene for the last few years since they cracked down on illegal mining in 2009,” Biswamitra Giri tells me. He’s the quintessential railway man -- Grade-1 Fitter, he tells mm – having been at this post for 32 years.
Once upon a time, this station used to be crowded throughout the day since 18415 Up was the only train connecting Barbil with Odisha’s capital, Bhubaneswar. People from Jharkhand got off here to work in the mines. And local workers would board the train upto Bansapani and Sukinda Road to work in the ore processing plants.
So where are they now? “Then the mines were closed and thousands of them lost their jobs,” Giri tells me. “Trades that had flourished dwindled.” His voice trails off in the manner of railway raconteurs finishing a sad story.
The train enters the station and the Grade I Fitter moves on. He has work to do on the locomotive. “You don’t have to rush,” he tells me. “The train halts for 10 minutes and will not leave before 9.25 am.”
On the train, I chatted up a man in his mid-40s perhaps. He had come rushing as the train began to move -- at the very time decreed by Mr Giri -- carrying a blanket in the crook of his arm. He appeared to me a daily-wager. But really how can we tell? Turns out, he’s a cook in the kitchen of a mining company. As is polite among Indian railway travelers, I did not ask his name before asking him what he did. Not much of crowd, I said, to break the ice.
He took me up and told me the mining story that Mr Giri had already told me. Two of his mates had lost their jobs. “We used to cook for 150-200 drivers, helpers and supervisors of a mining company. Now only 18 persons are having food in the mess. I cook three times a day and get Rs 7,000 per month with food. I was not thrown out because I am good with non-veg and biryani,” said the man whose name I did not know.
Earlier, he used to earn Rs 15,000 a month with tips from the guests. Now no guests ever come.
After what I thought was a polite interval, I asked him his name. He said he was Mahendra Gope, a native of Dangoaposi. He was going back home to attend the final rites of a relative.
The decline of a mining town is a good conversation ice-breaker, I discover. Bijay Ram, an autorickshaw driver, takes up the story. The number of businessmen frequenting the town has come down considerably. “I am one of the worst hit,” he says, his voice acquiring an emphasis. “I used to ferry people from Keonjhar to Joda, Barbil and Balani but the business is gone.”
Bijay Ram earned earned Rs 11 lakh between 2005 and 2008. Sensing from my face the question how he had kept count, he explains, “You may not believe it but it is a fact. One night I picked up a Jharkhand trader from Keonjhar and dropped at Balani. He gave me Rs 1,500. I used to earn at least Rs 25,000 a month. But now it is difficult to get Rs 5,000.”
That period was a golden era. And then the sad-tale diminuendo.
The mood on the train changed after hundreds of passengers boarded the 18415 Up at Bansapani and Jurudi. By the time we arrived at Keonjhar, my compartment was fully packed. Most of the newcomers were headed towards Sukinda Road, Cuttack and Bhubaneswar.
Wedged tight between two portly gentlemen, I could only converse with the passenger opposite me. This too was a mining story. The fifty-fivish man told me he was from Duburi in Jajpur district. He used to be what is called a helper of a truck before becoming the driver of a 12-wheeler that transported iron ore to Paradip Port. After the closure of the mines, he was unemployed for two years. “Thanks to an official, I now drive a truck engaged by a PSU.
He said his name is Dinabandhu Bindhani. And he added, “But my son is jobless now. He too used to work in a mine.”
I looked around the packed compartment for a sense of the gloom. All around me I saw the familiar bustle of passengers making themselves as comfortable as the confines would allow, two sharing the seat of one, seat seekers squeezing past people in the aisles and sharing a quick lunch. Who among these were the ejects of a boom gone bust, the workers and managers and owners of dhabas, petrol pumps, spare-parts shops, repair workshops that used to be ancillary to a gold rush town?
Barbil’s economy, I had learnt before boarding 18415 Up, went south after the Rs 68,000 crore mining scam was unearthed in 2009. It led to the closure of 200 mines. Over 25,000 trucks went off the roads. Hundreds of migrant workers from Jharkhand and Bihar fled.
One of the young men who got on the train at Jurudi joined the conversation. He came here from Raipura in Banaras district of UP and grew to own a popular roadside eatery. It is now reduced to a make-shift tea and snacks stall on the Tiria bypass.
“It is now difficult to make Rs 150 a day. I can’t go back home because I bought a house here,” he said. His name was Manoj Jaiswal and he was 34 years old.
I got off the train at Tiria and went in search of a hotel and found one not far from the rail tracks. As he signed me in, I asked the manager how business has been. “Bookings have come down drastically,” he began. “There used to be 16 good hotels here, six have shut down. The rest are struggling to stay afloat. Getting 20 guests a month is a dream now.”
Here again is the story I’ve been hearing all morning, I thought as I picked up the keys from Abhay Mohanty’s desk.