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For Illegal Coal Miners In Jharkhand, Death Is An Everyday Occupational Hazard

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By Shahnawaz Akhtar for Youth Ki Awaaz:

Dinesh Mohli, a resident of Giridih district in Jharkhand, was getting late for work when Youth Ki Awaaz caught up with him. An 80-feet-deep pit awaited Mohli. He has to get down the dark and dangerous cavity to dig out coal. That’s his daily routine, extending from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. At the end of the day, he takes home a wage of ₹400.

Mohli excavates coal from unscientifically dug pits. For miners like him, death is indeed an occupational hazard and not merely a figure of speech.

He’s 35-years-old now and has been doing this work since he was 17. He has a wife and two daughters to look after. Walking at a brisk pace to reach his workplace quickly, he said he is happy that despite being uneducated, he has a job that puts food on the table. Not once do the perils of the work cross his mind as he goes down the pit.

“Risk is there, no doubt. But there is a guarantee of money. I know that if I die inside the pit, my family will get a paltry compensation,” he said stoically, adding: “Do we have a choice?”

In 2008, four miners who were working in a pit like Mohli’s, died when it caved in. His own brother Vinod died at the age of 20 in 2008 after a massive cave-in at the coal mine. Rubble had fallen on him, making it difficult to breathe or escape. His employer had then paid just ₹20,000 to the family as compensation.

In another incident where three workers were killed in a coal mine collapse in April 2016, ₹25 lakh was paid to the families by Telangana-based Singareni Collieries Company Ltd.

Sustaining an injury at work also makes workers eligible for pay-offs running into lakhs of rupees. On the other hand, working in the unorganised sector deprives a worker’s family of the right to hold the employer accountable. On many occasions, deaths in illegal mines go unreported.

Representational photo of the narrow dark shafts miners work in. Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

These hazardous work sites are not exclusive male territories; women too get into these makeshift mines. A case in point is Kari Marik. A mother of two, she has been excavating coal for a decade now. She told YKA that she and her husband buy these illegal mines at a low price and then start excavating coal with the help of a few hired hands. She said 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 100 buckets. At ₹40 each bucket, the team earns ₹4,000 a day, splitting it evenly and each taking home ₹400.

Once miners bring out the coal, the likes of Mehr-un-Nissa play their part in the supply chain of this illicit business. A divorcee, this 32-year-old carries sacks full of coal loaded on a bicycle for more than 10 kilometres, taking it to middle-men. She too happens to be uneducated.

The coal reserve of Giridih is known for the fine quality of its mineral, low in moisture and ash content. The coalfield is spread across an area of 28 square kilometres. While the government’s Central Coalfields Limited (CCL) engages in organised mining, there are the likes of Mohli, who scrape out a living from illegal mines. Since this is an unorganised sector, miners are hardly given facilities that people working in organised mines get. For the poor, uneducated masses living in and around the mineral-rich regions of Dhanbad and Giridih, there is no option but to risk their life for a living.

The Central Coalfields Limited (CCL), 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. On the condition of anonymity, a CCL official told YKA that over the past couple of years, the local administration has warned factory owners against buying illegally mined coal, curbing the business of those selling it.

Highly Hazardous Consequences

Highlighting the dangers of mining jobs, a report published in The Indian Express in November 2016 stated that a fatal accident takes place every four days and a serious accident every one-and-a-half days. According to the report, the first six months of 2016 saw 65 deaths in India’s coal and non-coal mines. And this figure does not account for the accidents that took place in illegal mines.

Besides accidents, there are various occupational hazards. Coal mines emit methane. If there is no ventilation, it can displace oxygen and lead to loss of coordination, fatigue, breathing troubles, nausea and even death. These effects act sooner if a person is engaged in strenuous physical activity in this environment. In the stuffy, makeshift illegal mines, a mishap is written on the wall. And if a worker is lucky to avoid these disasters, there are woes they can’t escape like the black lung. Inhaling toxic coal mine dust takes a toll on a person’s lungs. According to standard operating procedures, anybody working in or near a mine should be wearing a respirator or gas mask. For Mohli, Marik and their peers, their best defence against the killer dust is a mere cloth wrapped around their mouth.

Evidently, this is not enough. A study published by a research student in 2015, titled ‘Effects of Coal Mining in Jharkhand‘, pointed out that the average lifespan of a man and a woman in and around East Parej and North Karanpura coal fields is 50 years and 45 years respectively.

Women carry baskets of coal back to their village for sale, after having scavenged the coal illegally from an open-cast coal mine near Jharia. Photo by Daniel Berehulak /Getty Images

No Better Option

Apparently, neither the CCL nor any NGO has any support programme for the poor, illiterate people who have to engage in illegal mining to make ends meet. Xavier Dias, former editor of Khan, Khanij and Adhikar (Mines, Minerals and Rights) works with such marginalised miners. Based in Jharkhand’s capital Ranchi, he argued that it’s unfair to call them illegal miners as the land originally belonged to their forefathers (organised mining had begun in Giridih in 1896).

When specifically asked if there is a need to provide some other job to these miners, he said they should be given cash compensation in lieu of their land. “We want justice, not charity,” he said.

“You cannot stop illegal coal mining. It happens at every (mineral) mining site. People resort to it as they have no other option,” Giridih MLA Nirbhay Kumar Shahabadi said. “As long as one can follow the safety norms, I have suggested (in the Assembly) to give leases to such miners in the abandoned areas. It will bring revenue to the colliery and thus, local people mining will not be termed illegal.”

When contacted by phone, Member of Parliament from the region, Ravindra Pandey, refused to discuss the issue.

India is far from being the only country where illegal coal mines are a way of life. In China, 19 were killed after a methane-induced explosion in an illegal mine in September 2016. Such illicit mines and consequent mishaps are notorious in Ukraine, where illegal mines are big and not mere pits. In March 2015, 33 people were killed after an explosion ripped through an illegal mine there. In 2007, 106 people were killed in a similar accident there.

Back home, Mohli couldn’t care less about how his job is reducing his lifespan or posing a threat to his life every day. For him, the biggest concern is earning his daily bread. If risking his life ensures a livelihood, so be it.

About the author: Shahnawaz Akhtar is a Jharkhand-based independent journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters. You can tweet to him @scribeshah

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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