The untold coal story: Jharkhand's cycle pullers work for a pittance

By Nupur Pavan Bang and Puran Singh

The Chutupalu valley, about 30 kilometers from Ranchi, capital of the state of Jharkhand, in India, reminds you of the beauty of some of the hill stations in northern India. But apart from the greenery, as far as the eye can see, an occasional rainbow and foggy mornings, what characterizes the valley is the sight of hundreds of men pulling their cycles uphill, with 10 to 20 sacks of coal loaded on each.

They buy the coal from various mines or from illegal miners near the Ramgarh district, load the sacks of coal on their cycles early in the morning and start the journey to Ranchi. The journey, one way, is about 80 kilometers. The elevation is about 1000 ft. The weights on each cycle could be anywhere between 150 to 200 kilograms.

 The untold coal story: Jharkhands cycle pullers work for a pittance

Each trip with these cycles carrying a load of over 150 kg is a day-and-a-half long

They take one and a half days to reach Ranchi, where they sell the coal to local restaurants and households and make Rs 400-500. They return to Ramgarh on the evening of the third day, only to start the three-day cycle starts once again the following day. Their earnings are often less than the average minimum daily wage of Rs 155 per day (2012-13) under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA), and in inhuman conditions.

Their bare, cracked feet, blackened and wet (from sweat) vests, and blackened trousers pulled up above the knees make you wonder about the motivation for undertaking such hardship. Ask them and the answer is simple: "Pet ke liye" for food.

That the benefits of MNREGA, the flagship programme of the United Progressive Alliance government, does not reach them is obvious. So may be the case with the Food Security Act as well whenever it is rolled out in Jharkhand. That the state and the central government don’t know about these 'coal pullers' is also not believable as they are as much a part of the valley as the rocks and the trees.

There are no official statistics on the number of people engaged in pulling coal in the region. While people have been engaged in coal picking and selling them locally since the last 40 to 50 years, the numbers were small till about 15 years back. But they have been steadily increasing. A rough estimate is that around 7,000 to 8,000 men are involved in this activity in the Ramgarh district. Around 1,000-2000 of them would be operating between Ramgarh-Ranchi, through the Chutupalu valley. There has been no effort to either organise them or help them in any way.

They are often accused of stealing coal. "This is not right," one of them says. "We buy from some people. Where they get it from, we do not know".

Theft is a factor often attributed to the shortage of coal in the country. Coal mines in India, mostly in the central and eastern part of the country, are located in isolated hilly terrain and tribal areas. These underdeveloped areas, low on socio-economic development, are perfect setting for anti-social activities such as coal theft.

According to a report by Infraline Energy Research, New Delhi, people in these areas, steal coal from all possible avenues. They come in groups, outnumber the security personnel and take coal from stockyards. They create huge bumps on the road to slow down open trucks loaded with coals and loot away tons of coal. In another adventurous fashion, they arrest railway sidings, stop trains and take away hundreds of sacks of coal in a jiffy. These groups include men, women and children – on foot, on bicycles and on bullock carts. These groups of looters, local unemployed people, are controlled and supported by mafia in these areas. They steal 50-100 bags at one go and later sell it to the mafia for small sum of money who later make big profits in black market. This is the way of life for thousands of families in the state.

However, these coal pullers vehemently deny such charges. They maintain that they have nothing to do with the coal thieves or the mafia. A coal puller says, "We don't want to do this. We know that in three to four years we will permanently spoil our knees and develop other severe ailments. If we stole, life would have been easier. But we don't steal."

In a state which is known as the coal capital of India, such a plight is an irony. On the one hand, billions are being made by industrialists and politicians through just the allocation of the coal blocks, and on the other are the hardships suffered by these coal cycle pullers for a pittance. It is a shame.

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Updated Date: Nov 12, 2013 15:50:17 IST