COAL theft has become a major issue in the 28 constituencies that go to the polls in the third phase of Assembly elections in Jharkhand on February 23. Any candidate who promises to allow "theft" of coal would emerge the winner. Reason: coal smuggling is a major racket in the eastern coal belt districts, and anybody wanting to stop this would only earn the wrath of the coal mafia. Another reason is that a large section of the population in these districts lives below the poverty line and earns by "procuring" coal for the mafia bosses. The theft actually involves a lot of hard work. This correspondent witnessed hundreds of people carrying coal from the mines of Central Coalfield Limited in the Rajrappa area near Hazaribagh, on bicycles, traversing some 70 kilometre on treacherous valley roads. They earn between Rs.500 and Rs.600 a trip. These people buy coal from the illegal contractors and sell it at a profit. This also involves walking long hours to collect the coal. For these "labourers" it is a means of earning a livelihood. Besides, they believe it is only "rejected" coal that they collect. Also, they pay for it and so claim that they do not actually pilfer. Naturally, only those who assure them that they can continue their "trade" will get their votes. Gomia's independent candidate Madhav Lal Singh, who has been winning since 1985, appears to be a sure winner this time too. He has promised them "protection" from police harassment.