Rich Land, Poor People: What Will Be the Future of Generations Growing Up in the Coal Belt of Eastern India?

A young boy looks into the camera as he uses a hoe to gather pieces of coal
Down To Earth
Jharkhand, India
Rich Land, Poor People: What Will Be the Future of Generations Growing Up in the Coal Belt of Eastern India?

Most workers in the coal belt of Jharkhand, including Dhanbad, are not counted along with the organized or unorganized sector workers associated with coal.

Women who pick coal underneath the coal mountains, people who carry it on bikes from the collieries, women who prepare coal by burning coal stones and those carrying coal miles away on bicycles are not in the picture.

Though these workers are not engaged in permanent or temporary jobs in coal units, they solve the livelihood crisis by scavenging and selling coal. There is no estimate on these populations living in the coal-rich states of Jharkhand, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh and Odisha.

Swati Dsouza, an analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), an organization working towards a clean energy transition, told Down To Earth, "No calculation has been made so far to determine the exact number of people who make a living by picking coal. We need to gather district-wise information on the population, the number of people engaged in mining and the count of individuals employed in organized sectors and jobs."

“Only then can we ascertain the number of people involved in coal picking for their livelihoods. It is crucial to know this for ensuring a just transition,” added Dsouza.

In the 27th Conference of Parties (COP26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change held in Glasgow, India committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2070. As a significant milestone towards this goal, the country aims to fulfil 50% of its electricity requirements from renewable energy sources by 2030. This target is set to mitigate the impacts of climate change-related disasters and ensure a sustainable future.

Transitioning from a carbon-based economy to a green economy is not just about achieving environmental sustainability. This implies that when coal mines are phased out in the future, efforts should be made to provide employment opportunities to millions associated with this sector.

Coal market

How large is the market for illegally sourced coal? In its absence, what will be the situation for the people and industries dependent on it?

In many small and big restaurants and dhabas (informal eateries) in Ranchi and Dhanbad, a pile of coal can be seen lying in a corner. Gangi Devi runs a dhaba near the national highway in Dhanbad to support her family.

“We cook our food using coal. We use coal worth approximately Rs 2,500 in a month. Currently, we get 25 kilograms of coal for Rs 400. The price of coal keeps increasing, two years ago; we used to get it for Rs 150-200,” she said.

A woman wearing an orange sari smiles slightly as she pours tea looking out of her grilled, kitchen window
Gangi Devi at her dhaba / Credit: Varsha Singh for Down To Earth.

Gangi Devi buys coal from cyclists passing by on the road or from local contractors. When asked about the consequences of no coal being available, she said, “Not only our dhaba but also the kitchens in every village home here rely on coal.”

Gangi Devi told this reporter, “We have a gas cylinder, but we use it only when it’s absolutely necessary. A cylinder is available for Rs 1,100. Even for the dhaba, five-six cylinders per month would fall short.”

Mrinmoy Chattoraj, a climate and energy consultant with Climate Trends, an organization working on climate change, cited the example from the COVID-19 years when distressing images of millions of laborers migrating emerged.

There is a parallel economy closely associated with the illegal extraction of coal, which fulfils the domestic demand for coal, from coal extraction to packaging, transportation and reaching various sectors, including dhabas, restaurants and small businesses across cities. This practice has been happening for decades, said Chattoraj.

If the coal-dependent communities are not connected to employment opportunities, this illegal parallel economy may grow even larger, he said.

Three men push bicycles laden with blackened gunny bags down the road on a sunny day
People carry coal on bicycles along the roads / Credit: Varsha Singh for Down To Earth.

There is a whole chain of workers and markets associated with coal in which millions of people are working, said Arup Chatterjee, a former member of the legislative assembly from Dhanbad’s Nirsa area.

“The closure of coal mining will lead to the displacement of a large number of workers. In Dhanbad alone, at least 2,000 registered enterprises and hundreds of unregistered units will be affected. Lakhs of people are working in these enterprises,” Chatterjee added.

What about a Just Transition?

About 7 kilometers away from Dhanbad, in Belgadiya of Palani Panchayat, there is a four-story colony in a dilapidated condition: a colony struggling with a heap of garbage, a strong stench, no means of transportation and a constant struggle for drinking water. This colony was established by the Jharia Rehabilitation and Development Authority in 2009 to accommodate families affected by the underground fire smoldering in Jharia coal mines and nearby residential areas.

Three storey-buildings with a few lit-up houses overlooks a garbage-strewn field
The colonies of displaced people from the coal mines in the Belgharia region are in a deteriorating condition / Credit: Varsha Singh for Down To Earth.

“We came here in 2010 with high hopes. We were told that we would get employment and a good place to live. But we didn’t find anything like that on the ground,” said Suresh Bhuiyan, who was displaced from the Jharia Dobari Colliery.

In the beginning, women were given training in sewing, spice making and running flour mills. After some time, all of that stopped. Unemployment increased after coming here, he added.

Bhuiyan, who came here after being rehabilitated, migrated to Chennai. “Many people who were resettled in this colony have migrated. Children here quit schooling after the eighth grade as the school is far away and there are forests nearby. We used to find some employment near the colliery. People have been misled into coming here,” he said.

A woman in a red sari sits outside a mud house, resting her hand on a steel pot
A woman in Godharapur near Kusunda Colliery / Credit: Varsha Singh for Down To Earth.

Jharkhand houses an estimated 40% of the country’s mineral wealth and 27.3% of its coal reserves. As the largest coal-producing state in the country, Jharkhand established the Just Transition Task Force in November 2022 to assess and provide recommendations on coal-dependent communities.

The chairman of the task force, Ajay Kumar Rastogi, said, “The coal-dependent communities will also be included in the Just Transition."

Coal India has 84,000 hectares of land. More than 100 of their mines are currently economically non-viable. The land of such mines can be utilized for new ventures, creating new employment opportunities.

There is potential for green hydrogen in Jharkhand. Electrolyzers, essential for this, are not currently manufactured in the country but can be produced here. Job creation will occur in the hydrogen supply chain. We have residual coal mining land for battery storage and gravity storage in the green energy sector, said Rastogi.

“We need to identify employment opportunities, empower and skill the coal-dependent communities. For this, we are collaborating with various partners possessing different expertise to create a framework. It will be released in the coming weeks. We are talking about the entire ecosystem of coal, which includes not only those employed in Coal India but also the unorganized sector and coal pickers,” Rastogi added.

  • Read Part 1 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 on May 24, 2023 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Banner Image: A 14-year-old boy from Jahajtand village helps his family by picking coal / Credit: Varsha Singh for Down To Earth. 

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