Sixteen-year-old Sonali picked coal as a heavy machine dumped it on top of an artificial hill made up of the mineral. Women in Jahajtand village of Jharkhand do not care about their lives as they grab the larger and superior pieces of stones. They break the larger pieces of coal into smaller ones with a hammer and fill the baskets with them.
Sonali efficiently does this work along with other women. She comes daily with her grandmother to collect coal. When asked why she doesn’t go to school, the smile on her face melted into tears.
Sonali told this reporter, "I have studied up to the tenth grade. There is no facility for education in the village; the school is far away, and there is no road to reach there. My father doesn’t have any income. All the women in our village come here to pick coal at 7 am. By 1 pm, we break coal here. After lunch, we return to pick up coal at 3 pm. We stay here until it gets dark. I spend the whole day picking coal. I can’t even think about what I want to become. If I were able to study, maybe then I would contemplate it.”
The women of Jahajtand village, situated on the banks of the Damodar River in the Dhanbad district of Jharkhand, recalled that their farms used to be on the site of these coal mines. There used to be a stock of wheat and paddy in their homes.
“They dumped coal on our fields. About 20 years ago, they took away our lands but didn’t provide any jobs in return. The villagers have protested several times for compensation. Now, we sustain our families by picking coal,” said Vandana Devi, another villager.
In a day, a person collects up to 50 kg of coal in a sack, Vandana estimated. Contractors take coal from the village itself. They gives us up to Rs 150-200 for a sack. Around 15 people were picking coal when this reporter arrived there. Apart from this, villagers were also seen returning to the village carrying coal in sacks.
If even a minimum of 20 people lift 50 kg of coal daily, then about 1,000 kg of coal is lifted in a day. The villagers work tirelessly, putting their lives at risk, earning just Rs 150-200 a day from sunrise to sunset. This means one person in the family gets five-six thousand rupees in a month.
The villagers state that they often come face-to-face with the police and employees of Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL). Upon sighting them, they run away; their lives have been going on like this for years.
“Every corner of Jharkhand is rich in minerals. However, the officers and employees of the coal companies belong to other states. We are the natives here. We lack education and employment opportunities. How can we progress?” asked Khemlal Mahato, a social worker from the village.
Khemlal told this reporter, "They scavenge coal from our land and the stove in our homes hardly burns. A family settled on coal-bearing land will not be able to earn as much money in a whole life’s hard work as an official working in a colliery earns in a year."
In Dhanbad district, with a population of about 2.85 million, there are many villages on the lines of Jahajtand village, whose primary source of income is coal. The coal mines have taken over the land of these villagers, displacing them. Abandoned houses have been found in this area, where coal continues to burn beneath the ground. Several fatal accidents have occurred as a result.
Connected with coal
The economy of 12 of the 24 districts of Jharkhand, with a population of about 32.5 million, is directly related to coal. More than 13 million people across the country are directly associated with coal mining and related sectors such as transportation, energy, iron, steel, and brick manufacturing, according to a report by the National Foundation for India in 2021.
At the national level, 266 districts have at least one asset linked to the coal sector, and 135 of these 266 districts have two or more assets dependent on coal; for instance, a coal mine, thermal power plant, sponge iron plant and steel plant.
In 2021-2022, the Jharkhand government earned approximately Rs 10,339.44 crore in revenue from coal through various sources, according to a report from the Just Transition Research Center at IIT Kanpur.
Rich land, poor people
However, in contrast, the youth residing in coal-rich areas are grappling with the unemployment crisis. Vijay Mahato, a resident of Godhar Basti adjacent to Kusunda Colliery in Jharia, Dhanbad, told this reporter, "The government earns crores from the coal extracted from our land, and the boys of the village do not have any jobs. Some work as laborers earning around five-six thousand rupees per month. They have dug a trench about 400 feet deep right next to our fields. If they continue excavating all around our homes, we won’t even be safe in our own houses. We live in constant fear. First, we lost our crops, and now we are losing our lives."
In Dhanbad, it is common to see people carrying several sacks of coal on bicycles and motorcycles early in the morning. You may come across individuals carrying five-six bags of coal on a cycle and up to 25 sacks of coal on a motorcycle.
“It is also an art. If there is a minimum of 50 kilograms of coal in one bag, then in 25 bags, it would be 1,250 kilograms. How can someone ride a motorcycle carrying such a heavy load?” Vijay Mahato raised his concerns.
Amid the rising black and yellow smoke and the toxic fumes that permeated the air, riders on motorbikes carrying coal-filled bags were heading out from the Kusunda Colliery early in the morning. Covered in coal dust from head to toe, one of the youths expressed his frustration in a conversation, saying, “People call us coal thieves. They circulate our pictures on social media. We risk our lives to extract coal. Will we let our children go hungry?”
Sixty-five-year-old Sheela Devi, one of the women who prepare coal by burning it in a fire at the edge of an opencast mine in Jharia, told this reporter, "We earn our bread by picking coal. The coal companies have taken over our land, and we haven’t received any compensation. Even at this age, we have to go down to collect coal. When they chase us, we run; else, we get beaten up. Many times, I was severely injured. It saddens us a lot."
For the local people living near the coal mines, the livelihood crisis is even more significant than the burning of coal within their homes, streets and marketplaces as well as the constant fear of land subsidence. The livelihood crisis weighs heavily on their lives.
Raghavan Ragunandan, the general secretary of the coal fields labor Union in Jharkhand, also expressed dissatisfaction with the neglect of the coal-dependent community.
“Those who are stealing coal, are they amateur thieves? What alternatives do they have? We label them as coal thieves. Look at their hard work, look at their physical condition, they are not becoming millionaires,” he said.
"They manage somehow to make ends meet. By the time they reach 35-40 years of age, their bodies are worn out. They are alive because of coal. Provide them with alternative employment options. Despite that, if they engage in coal theft, then call them thieves," Ragunandan added.
In December 2022, in response to a question asked in the Lok Sabha, it was stated that 667 FIRs were registered in eight states between 2019-20 and 2021-22 concerning coal theft from the mines of Coal India Limited.
“It is challenging for us to completely stop the activities of local people who engage in it for their livelihood. We take action against those who are involved in organized activities,” said Rishma Rameshan, the superintendent of police for the rural area of Dhanbad and in charge of the urban area.
“Local people sustain their households by selling coal because there are no other means of employment available here. It involves various social and economic aspects,” Rameshan added.
Read Part 2 of the story here.
This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Down To Earth in Hindi and English in May 22, 2023 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner Image: Women in Jahajtand village of Jharkhand do not care about their lives as they grab the larger and superior pieces of stones / Credit: Varsha Singh for Down To Earth.