May 18, 2021 7 min read

The curse of coal

The curse of coal
A child wiping his eyes in Jharia’s toxic environment. Photo: Supratim Bhattacharjee

Jharia, the coal-rich belt falling in the eastern state of Jharkhand in India, has one of the largest coal reserves in India. However, this powerhouse of India’s highly coal-dependent economy is a hellhole for thousands living in the area. It is a spot of untold miseries and overlooked atrocities — a curse for its thousands of residents.

Whenever I travel to Jharia, I see children working from early in the morning until afternoon, carrying baskets full of coal from mines. At an age when these children should be attending schools, their fragile hands are blackened and bruised by layers of coal dust. Their eyes are yellowed and their faces are robbed of even the slightest speck of childhood joys.

Sometimes, the children are asked to go down 300 feet in the mine to extract coal. They rarely have a chance to drink water.

"It is really hard, but if we don't do this how will we feed ourselves?" one of the children told me. "Do you ever feel afraid to go into the mine?" I asked him. "Yes. If a coal shelf falls on us we will die."

Producing the largest amount of coal annually, Jharia provides income opportunities to the local villagers, mostly illiterate and reeling under acute poverty. After all the laborious work, they earn just less than $ 2 a day. Their children suffer from malnutrition and diseases caused by the toxic environment.

While world over, governments are trying to phase out coal as a source of energy and replace it with solar or wind energy, in India dependence on coal is on a rise. Last year, the Indian government decided to open close to 40 new coal mines, inviting bids from private companies to operate them. While alternative sources of energy prove costlier to harness, the huge coal reserves in India provide an easy solution to meet the country's energy needs, burdened with a billion-plus population.

Coal mining releases harmful chemicals in the environment, including sulphur dioxide (SO2) and carbon dioxide (CO2). The smog and haze from mining lead to serious diseases. Further, these chemicals also contaminate water. In particular, minute particles of fly ash often settle in water bodies, and when consumed by humans cause irreversible damage to the body.

Unfortunately, in Jharia, children bear the brunt of the deadly coal mining. India's Mines Act of 1952 prohibits anyone under the age of 18 from working in coal mines.

In Jharia, however, laws hold little meaning. It is an area famous for illegal mining activities, where land mafias dictate their own laws. According to a study by Yugank Goyal of the O.P. Jindal Global University, the mafias often derive power from "socially hierarchical relationships involving debt and/or caste." Another article published at the Yale School of the Environment in 2016, says, "the Jharia coalfield has a tradition of brutality. It and the neighbouring steel city of Dhanbad are notorious in India for being the home of coal mafias. These are criminal gangs that reputedly control trade unions, money lending, a huge clandestine trade in coal — and politics."

I was told, the mafias force the villagers to risk their lives amidst alarming levels of pollution, underground fire, accidents, and frequent deaths. The villagers, unaware of their rights, have no alternative, but to agree to the labor without any kind of protective gear. At times they even consider selling their children to the mafias.

India is often projected as the next superpower, an Asian giant. However, Jharia reminds me quite the opposite — a continuity of the dark age.

I am shocked and pained to see helpless people in Jharia’s mining community. Their plead for help is echoing in the void, unheard and ignored.

The idea behind documenting the lives of people in coal mining areas is not just to tell the world about the inhuman living conditions of coal mine workers, but also trigger collective action against the menace.

The damage done by coal mining to the environment is precipitating climate change. It is a threat to human life and the environment.

Humans should not only treat other humans with dignity, but also equally respect the environment. If we don’t wake up to the perils of coal mining now, we might rob the right to clean air from a whole generation.

The time for action is now.

Local village girls waiting to enter the coal mine in Jharia, Dhanbad, India. Photo: Supratim Bhattacharjee
Poisonous fumes coming out of a coal mine. Photo: Supratim Bhattacharjee
Local villagers have loaded coal on their cycles for further selling. Photo: Supratim Bhattacharjee
A village woman is busy preparing coke by burning coal in front of her home. Photo: Supratim Bhattacharjee
Almost 100.000 people are attached to coal scavenging in the Jharkhand coal belt. The absence of an alternative source of income forces them to choose coal scavenging as their profession. Photo: Supratim Bhattacharjee
Godhar coal mine is affected by underground fires causing economic loss to the mining company. Photo: Supratim Bhattacharjee
Two children witness coal dumping at a ground near a coal mine. Earlier, this area was a pond, and villagers from Ghanudi area in Jharia used the water for their daily activities. However, the pond has turned into a dumping ground for a coal mining company. They dump stones, burned coal from underground fires, and other wastes from coal mines here. Extreme dust has filled the air, causing lung diseases. Photo: Supratim Bhattacharjee
Nasir (19) is a coal scavenger who regularly collects coal from a coal filled truck. Photo: Supratim Bhattacharjee
Villagers bathe their buffaloes at a pond that has turned black with coal dust. Photo: Supratim Bhattacharjee
Villagers engaged in household tasks at a mining village in Jharia. Usually, the women of this village cook in the evening and feed their families. They cannot afford education for their children due to poverty, which forces them to take up mining. Photo: Supratim Bhattacharjee
A man bathing with well water after completion of the day’s work. Photo: Supratim Bhattacharjee
Drivers are waiting inside the Godhor coal mine for their shifting purpose, Dhanbad, India. Photo: Supratim Bhattacharjee
A coal miner near the mining area. Photo: Supratim Bhattacharjee
Local village children are sitting in front of a house damaged by underground fire at a coal mine. Photo: Supratim Bhattacharjee
Sima (7) supports her family by extracting coal from the mine. Photo: Supratim Bhattacharjee
Villagers standing in front of a house which has been damaged by the underground fire and its smoke. Photo: Supratim Bhattacharjee
Pari (17) stays in a house in front of coal mine fire. Since her family is extremely poor, they can't move somewhere else. Photo: Supratim Bhattacharjee
A security guard of Coking Coal Limited (BCCL) is guarding a house damaged from underground fire. Photo: Supratim Bhattacharjee
Local children of Laltenganj are standing in front of a local underground fire. Photo: Supratim Bhattacharjee
An underground coal mine fire has totally damaged a government-sponsored school. Photo: Supratim Bhattacharjee
A villager in front of the underground coal mine fire in Jharia, Jharkhand, India. He has lost his house and is not finding any hope to earn except illegal coal mining. Photo: Supratim Bhattacharjee
A minor coal scavenger standing with her sister. Photo: Supratim Bhattacharjee
Children playing in front of their homes in the evening. Photo: Supratim Bhattacharjee
Supratim Bhattacharjee
Supratim Bhattacharjee
Supratim is a photographer based in Kolkata, India. He is specialised in environmental and climate change issues.
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