Editor's Note: A network of 60 reporters set off across India to test the idea of development as it is experienced on the ground. Their brief: Use your mobile phone to record the impact of 120 key policy decisions on everyday life; what works, what doesn't and why; what can be done better and what should be done differently. Their findings — straight and raw from the ground — will be combined in this series, Elections on the Go, over a course of 100 days.
Giridh: Life is cheap in the mineral-rich districts of Jharkhand, where abandoned mines are aplenty and illegal mining is rampant. Constituencies like Giridih — which covers parts of Giridih, Bokaro and Dhanbad districts — are rich in high-quality coal deposits known for their low moisture and ash content. Around 20,000 poor villagers of Giridih risk life and limb every day, digging for coal in the mines abandoned by Central Coalfields Ltd (CCL). CCL manages all the nationalised coalfields in the country and has an annual turnover of eight lakh tonnes. Unverified estimates have it that before 2015, the production from illegal pits was more than that from CCL.
In a shadow industry of such an enormous scale, death literally hovers over the heads of these villagers. No estimates are available on the number of cave-ins that have happened or the number of people killed in such cave-ins. But that such incidents happen is accepted by all. Mohammed Maqsood (name changed) recalls how his friend died when the abandoned mine he was working in collapsed in May 2017. “I did not go to work that day, so I survived,” said Maqsood. “I don’t know how long luck will favour me. We know our lives are at stake, but giving up a good source of income is definitely not an option for us.” The accident occurred at Kabribad mine near Simariadhauda village where over 300 people were engaged in illegal mining. Six lives were lost on that fateful day.
Compare that to the incident in April 2016 in Telangana-based Singareni Collieries Company where three workers were killed in a coal mine collapse. A compensation of Rs 25 lakhs was paid to the families. Sustaining an injury at work in these state-owned and other legal mines also make workers eligible for decent pay-offs. But in cases such as the one described earlier, they are left with nothing. Sometimes, if the mine owner is generous and able, some meagre money might come their way.
A coal mine in Giridh, Jharkhand. Ratan Lal/101Reporters
Mine deaths in this coal belt have been a particularly harsh reality of life. And illegal mining has been reported in Jharkhand at least since 2004, when 20 people were buried alive in a mine collapse in Hiranpur village, about 200 km from Giridih. Jharkhand has seen some of the worst mining disasters in India — in 1965, 268 people were killed in a mine explosion and 372 miners died in flooding in 195, both in Dhanbad. Death in a mine can come in many forms and they are all brutal. Some would consider a quick death by a falling roof or a shower of wet radioactive slurry mercy compared to a long, uncertain wait hundreds of feet underground with a wall of water just a freak occurrence away. Such tragedies happen frequently enough in regulated mines, but at least there is a record. Deaths in illegal mines are often hearsay and rarely get reported. In the abandoned mines of Giridh, it’s pointless to keep an accident log.
Poverty and lack of alternate sources of income are the main reasons for men like Sunil Kumar (name changed) venturing into abandoned coal mines. Sunil has been doing this for the past two years, and continues to do so despite the increasing threat of being arrested by the police. Giridih SP Surendra Kumar Jha said, “The Giridih Police believes in zero tolerance regarding illegal activities and we are conducting constant raids against these acts. In the last year, massive action has been taken against illegal mining and illegal transportation of coal in which more than 50 cases have been registered and more than 100 arrested. We have managed to break the syndicate, and illegal mining has reduced over the years.” As illegal mining is a cognizable crime, if a person is arrested, the minimum prison sentence is not less than two years. But being thrown behind bars is not much of a deterrent when the biggest imperative for people like Sunil is survival.
“I have a family of eight to feed,” said Sunil. “I earn Rs 400 to Rs 500 a day by digging out coal from the mines here. Daily wage work would not fetch me more than Rs 200 a day, which is not enough to sustain my family. The risk of police raids and getting arrested is imminent. But for us, mining is the best bargain.” According to a news report, 10 people can work on a “good, productive pit”. Six go down to excavate while four help them bring the coal out. At one go, about 40 kilograms of coal can be excavated. In a day, they aim to dig out at least 100 buckets. At Rs 40 each bucket, the team earns Rs 4,000 a day, splitting it evenly and each taking home Rs 400.
Miners like Sunil sell what they dig out to other labourers who carry the coal in jute bags — often on cycles and bullock carts — to middlemen who sell it to industries looking for coal on the cheap. Early this month, a coal-laden truck and 12 motorbikes laden with illegal coal were seized from different areas under Muffasil police station in Giridh.
Elections and who wins the Giridih seat is of little consequence to these illegal miners as they feel the government is willing to do little for them. “The most they do is provide some income from programmes like MNREGA,” said a miner. “The money given in these programmes is much less than what we earn from mining coal. Instead of such low paying jobs, we will stop illegal mining if the government provides better alternatives or increases the daily wage rates. No one wants to risk their lives, we do it for money.”
The plight of these villagers and the larger issue of illegal mining has never been a campaign issue here, though it deserves political attention, said Ravindra Kumar Pandey, five-time BJP MP from Giridih, who has not been given a ticket this time. “Those contesting the 2019 Lok Sabha elections must raise this issue in their campaigns,” Pandey added. “The problem here is poverty. But instead of focusing on the real mafias who are smuggling coal illegally, the administration is cracking the whip on the poor who are putting their lives in danger to feed their families”. On being asked about his contribution in tackling the issue, Pandey said, "I raised the question several times in Parliament but did not get any response. The maximum I can do is raise the issue; I do not have the power to give any direction regarding it."
"People who were displaced by mining took up this work decades ago and it gradually expanded into a huge illegal business,”, said Omilal Azad, former Communist Party of India MLA and leader of United Coal Workers' Union. “We want it to become part of the political agenda in this campaign, but none of the political parties have come forward to take it up.” Azad believes that the government can legalise this mining by forming cooperatives at the village level. “This will ensure the safety of miners and provide them with a legal livelihood option, in addition to preventing loss of revenue to the government.”
Rishikesh Mishra, district-level president of National Colliery Labour Union and secretary of National Mines Federation said not just illegal mining, but lack of jobs should be made a political campaign issue. "There is an acute shortage of job opportunities in the district forcing the villagers to indulge in illegal activities. It is high time that political parties make this a part of their manifestos," Mishra added.
Labourers often carry coal from mines to middlemen on bicycles. Ratan Lal/101Reporters
In the absence of any policy direction on this from the government, the district administration can do little more than conduct regular police raids on villagers to curb illegal mining. “Recently, we filled up many defunct mines using earth movers,” said Giridih district collector Rajesh Kumar Pathak. “Also, FIRs on illegal mining have been filed in several cases by the forest department and action is being taken against those named. Local police too conduct regular raids at places where illegal mining is happening, and carry out drives to check heavy vehicles to stop coal smuggling.” No figures, however, were available on how many such raids have happened in recent months as the police superintendent was on poll duty and unavailable to comment.
Meanwhile, as the campaign gains momentum, the fear of police raids is heightened by the very real possibility that the vehicles carrying illegal coal or explosives for use in these mines may be stopped at election checkposts. Thanks to election bandobast, the illegal coal machinery is in hibernation, or has gone even deeper underground (pun intended.)
This is an added worry in the already precarious lives of these villagers, many of them whom are women and children. Minors get involved in the work along with their families as soon as they enter their teens. Their small frame allows them to crawl into smaller rat holes and dig out the coal. “My husband and his brother along with other men go inside the caves and we stay outside helping them take out the coal,” said a village woman, who like all the other miners we spoke to, refused to give her name.
“Yes, there definitely is a fear of going to jail, and I do wonder what would happen to my three children if I and my husband are behind bars,” said the woman. “But I cannot stop working and deprive my children of food today out of such fear.”
(The authors are Ranchi-based freelance writers and members of 101Reporters)