Lack of jobs in Jharkhand's Giridh leads to proliferation of illegal coal mines; for villagers, polls only mean more police raids

Lack of jobs in Jharkhand's Giridh leads to proliferation of illegal coal mines; for villagers, polls only mean more police raids

Lack of jobs in Jharkhand's Giridh leads to proliferation of illegal coal mines; for villagers, polls only mean more police raids

No improvement in job prospects continues to forced poor villagers down illegal coal mines; Elections just hit snooze for a while

Kelly Kislaya & Kamal Nayan

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 its 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 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 the CCL’s.

In a shadow industry of such 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 it happens is accepted by all. Md. 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 would 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 ₹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 this case, they are left with nothing. Sometimes, if the mine owner is generous and able, some meagre money might come their way.

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 the illegal mining has reduced over the years.” Being 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 and 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. In one go, about 40 kilogram of coal can be excavated. In a day, they aim to dig out at least 100 buckets. At ₹40 each bucket, the team earns ₹4,000 a day, splitting it evenly and each taking home ₹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 provided 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 reaction. 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’s high time that political parties make this a part of their manifesto," Mishra added.

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 besides heavy vehicle checking drives 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 are stopped at election checkposts. Thanks to election bandobast, the illegal coal machinery is in hibernation or gone even deeper underground pun intended.

It is an added worry in the already precarious lives of these villagers working in such mines, many of them whom 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. Sadly, several of those killed in these mishaps are minors. “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 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 who helps her family in an unauthorised mine. “But I cannot stop working and deprive my children of food today out of such fear.”

Jharkhand: Mining deads in

May 2016 - 3 killed in Turamdih Uranium Mine near Jamshedpur (state owned)

Dec 2016 - 10+ dead at Lalmatia in Godda (state owned)

May 2017 - 6 died in Kabribad mine near Simariadhauda village (illegal)

Nov 2018 - 3 killed in Dhanbad (illegal)

Jan 2019 - 2 dead in Dhanbad (outsourced mine to a private company)

[The authors are Ranchi-based freelance writers and members of 101Reporters]



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