Covering over 280 square kilometres, Jharia, in the northeastern state of Jharkhand, is ground zero for the thousands of women and children who slave in its scores of illegal open-cast mines.
It is arguably one of the most horrifying landscapes in the world; sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide seep from the ground. Hundreds of small blazes smoulder as giant underground fires that have raged for over a century break through the surface of the earth. These inhuman conditions coupled with a ruthless appetite for profit keep the labourers who work these mines in a state of hopeless bondage.
These mines are called illegalised mines – a legal twilight zone, neither legal nor illegal, which is exploited by the coal barons of Jharkhand. The ‘mafia-mode of production’ is not an irregularity, but a kind of complementary department, outsourced by the nationalised industry. The law of the land puts on blinkers and pretends the issue does not exist.
But, it does exist. Almost 7,00,000 people, over half of them women and children, work in inhuman conditions of bonded labour, with pervasive violence and widespread gender and caste discrimination.
Offering jobs and opportunities to small businesses, these ‘illegalised’ mines play a significant role in local politics. It is estimated that 20-30% of total coal production in India comes from these mines.
To meet their production targets, the mine operators enter the physically intensive, low-wage labour market, where workers come under the ruthless, exploitative gaze of mafia-type enforcers.
As India nurses ambitions to take her place at the high table of the world’s economic superpowers, high-quality coking coal, used for steel and thermal power production, becomes critically important.
India is the third largest coal producer in the world.
The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government is aiming to increase India’s coal production every year. To this end, the government has announced that they intend to open a new mine every month.
But for every legal mine that opens or operates, there is an illegal coal mine that runs alongside.
It is here, in these illegal mines, that exploitation is open and rampant. Girls as young as seven, work alongside adults putting in 17 to 18 hours a day. But this does not figure in any calculus. All that counts are the tons of coal extracted each day.
Even as the sulphur dioxide continues to sear lungs indiscriminately across the wasteland that is Jharia today, these women and children struggle as modern-day slaves, without even the hope that one day their own government, its conscience seared, will awaken to their plight.
In India, since 1938, it has been illegal to employ a woman in a coal mine. After independence, the women workers who were no longer allowed into the legal mines were forced to seek employment in the unofficial and illegal mines. They form 60% of labour. Lata, who works in the Jharia coal mine, has no union to fight for her rights. She is part of a temporary workforce, which is controlled by a local labour contractor. Photo: Asha Thadani.
Six-year-old Guddi works as a coal miner. Photo: Asha Thadani.
Generations are trapped by the work in the minefields of Jharia. Almost everybody is connected to the coal trade in some way. Devi tends to her work while carrying her granddaughter. In all likelihood, these coalfields will suck her in just like her mother and grandmother. Photo: Asha Thadani.
Shanti, once a landless peasant in bonded labour, is now forced to work in the mines to repay her debt. The coalfields of Jharia were once fertile. Today, it is a wasteland where the soil is barren and the air and water are too toxic to allow life to take root. Photo: Asha Thadani.
The illegal coal mines of Jharia often employ children as young as seven. These children are part of the family unit that is contracted to work on a piecemeal basis. Most of these families migrate from their villages when their rural resources are exhausted. Lakshmi is part of the emerging urban labour force that is forced to live and work under extremely uncertain circumstances. Photo: Asha Thadani.
An injured miner limps past the smoking open coal seam fires to her home. Jharia’s sprawling open cast mines lie on top of a maze of underground fires that have been burning for over a century. When mining activity shifted from underground to rampant above-the-ground open cast mines, these fires grew exponentially: over 70 open coal seam fires have been raging over 110 square miles of land. Photo: Asha Thadani.
10-year-old Pooja is a migrant worker. Going to a school that does not teach the language of migrants is not an option. Her entire family is involved in the coal trade and values the next meal above an education. Photo: Asha Thadani.
In the coal mines, one can see the feminisation of certain jobs that occurred as women entered the labour force in increasing numbers. Men have greater access to skill acquisition, training and up-gradation. Women workers are treated as supplementary, subsidiary and secondary workers. Photo: Asha Thadani.
After a day’s work of cutting and collecting coal, women then burn and process it outside their homes in the evening. They often work over 18 hours a day. Their life expectancy is cut short by an average of 10 years. Cancers of the stomach and lungs, as well as respiratory diseases, are the leading causes of mortality amongst these women. Photo: Asha Thadani.
Neetu takes a quick break to nurse her baby during a shift in the mine. The social construction of gender shapes the lives and work of women labourers. Their family responsibilities include and overlap with their role as workers. Photo: Asha Thadani.
Six-year-old Munni lives in a polluted environment that billows sulphur dioxide and methane. Over 1.4 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide are belched out into the atmosphere every year, turning the region into one of the most toxic on the planet. And India into the fourth biggest producer of greenhouse gases. Photo: Asha Thadani.
Jaya worships at a shrine set among the smoking sinkholes that dot the coal fields. Most of the miners are Dalits. These lower castes are among the most marginalised groups of people in the region. Their caste status makes them vulnerable to sexual abuse from up-country male immigrants to these coalfields. Photo: Asha Thadani.
Kanta who has worked for 45 yrs in the mines, limps painfully past her destroyed home. There is no zoning for the miners’ homes: the mines and houses run into and around each other. Resettlement initiatives by the government are lacking in basic amenities and opportunities. Around 700,000 people eat, sleep and live amid these perennial fires that are being continuously triggered by renewed mining. Photo: Asha Thadani.
Noxious gases leak from the cracks in the floors and walls of homes in Jharia. In a ploy that seems straight out of the 19th-century capitalist playbook, the mining authority will often declare an area ‘too dangerous for habitation.’ The home is then razed to the ground and the land made available for mining. Photo: Asha Thadani.
Asha Thadani is a photographic artist based in Bangalore, India.
Text by Ramesh Ramanathan.