For four months in 2019, Umesh Kumar Saw protested against a new coal mining project that was sprouting up just 50 meters behind his home, threatening to gobble up three acres of his family’s agricultural land. But when the mining company offered him a job, he relented. His family gave up their land in Churchu in Jharkhand’s Hazaribagh district, and Saw joined 300 others from the village to sign a six-month contract as a “helper” in the Pakri Barwadih mine.
“For Rs 18,000 a month, we became a lollipop,” the 36-year-old said, using the term that has become popular in the village for those who gave up their land rights in exchange for employment. Not far from the village school compound where we stood talking in November, farmers collected their harvest right up to a line of grey rubble, the yellow of their wheat stark against the black mountain of excavated earth towering above them.
Traditionally, coal companies owned by the Indian government offered permanent jobs as compensation to families that lost their agricultural land to a mine. But Pakri Barwadih is being mined by a joint venture of two private firms, Thriveni Earthmovers and Sainik Mining, which has been subcontracted operations by the National Thermal Power Corporation that holds the mining rights.
Such private arrangements, known as mine developer and operator, or MDO, contracts, are now ubiquitous in India. They have drastically altered the employment landscape in the country’s coal belts.
Now, coal mining jobs are hard to get – and harder to keep.
After he was employed at the Pakri Barwadih mine, Saw, a former motorcycle mechanic, was assigned the task of fixing trucks and tractors in the mechanical department. His contract was repeatedly renewed, until negotiations over bonuses and wages devolved into clashes in June 2021 and the company terminated and suspended 27 workers, including Saw.
Saw is now bitter. “They show us big dreams and then take it all away,” he said.
Globally, as some countries have begun to phase out coal for renewable energy, many are advocating for “just transitions”, that is, ensuring coal-dependent communities find alternative jobs. India, however, is in a peculiar situation: the quantum of coal mining isn’t expected to reduce in the coming decades. New mines, in fact, continue to sprout in traditional coal belts.
Yet, there may still be reason to contemplate alternative futures for coal workers. As our ground-level view of six mines across three districts in Jharkhand reveals, the pressure to increase coal production has intensified, but the demand for labourers has plummeted.
“Formal mining employment has become a rare commodity,” said Itay Noy, an energy researcher whose PhD focused on coal labour in Jharkhand’s Ramgarh district. He attributed this to the search for “financial efficiencies in private companies” that prefer hiring workers on casual contracts.
Even the quality of jobs has declined. U Kumar, a former Chairman and Managing Director of South Eastern Coalfields, a subsidiary of the government-owned Coal India Limited, said private jobs pay one-third that of Coal India. Now an advisor at the Aditya Birla Group’s Essel Mining, Kumar added that working hours in privately-run mines are up from eight to 14, proper housing has disappeared, and accidents are on the rise. “This situation can’t be allowed to continue. It’s unethical,” he said.
In a series of ground reports, Scroll.in is examining the changing labour patterns of two major energy sources, coal and solar. With employment levels touching a new low in India, the country’s ability to chart a green future will be tested against the jobs challenge.
India’s coal sector directly employs a workforce of about 1.2 million, along with a larger informal ecosystem and several local mono-economies encompassing up to 20 million lives, according to energy researcher Sandeep Pai.
In the 1970s, coal mining was nationalised, partly to secure workers’ rights, the government had argued at the time. But as India drifted away from socialism in the 1990s, liberalising its economy, select public and private companies were allowed to mine coal for use in their captive steel, cement and power plants. In the decade that followed, many public companies outsourced mining operations to private miners as part of MDO contracts, giving them control over the mines for decades.
Before liberalisation, part of the objective of the coal industry was to generate employment, said Noy. “That was pushed aside when the main priority was to become economically and financially competitive.”
The primacy of jobs
The Pakri Barwadih mine is illustrative of the conflicts spawned by the changes in India’s coal landscape. The National Thermal Power Corporation, a company owned by the Central government, won rights to mine coal here way back in 2004. But mining could not begin for more than a decade. In 2016, soon after the NTPC outsourced the mine to private miners Thriveni-Sainik, the police killed at least four villagers protesting against the project.
Unlike Central Coalfields, the Coal India subsidiary with a heavy presence in Jharkhand, NTPC does not guarantee employment in exchange for land. Instead, it gives an annuity of Rs 30,000, or Rs 2,500 monthly, to those who have given up less than one acre of land. For more than one acre, it gives Rs 3,000 per acre per month, or Rs 36,000 per acre per year, with payment for a maximum of five acres.
But officials contend, landowners are unwilling to bend unless offered a job.
As per the contract with NTPC, the current operations over a 300-hectare area require about 1,800 workers, Thriveni Sainik executives said. But, with the mine sitting on 20-odd villages, they claim they have been forced to employ nearly 5,500 people. Of those, roughly 1,400 are being paid a monthly salary by the company, but don’t have to work – as there is none to give.
“It’s so they cooperate and don’t create a nuisance,” an official said. “We don’t have a (lack of) manpower in India but the cost behind that man is too much – not just the salary, but the strikes.”
Two years ago, Thriveni even conjured up a workaround to the lack of mining jobs: a garment factory nearby funded by the mine’s profits. However, the jobs making school and mining uniforms with machines from Japan and managers from Tiruchirappalli are still only a drop in the bucket – employing just 350 workers.
By 2021, Saw and his colleagues saw problems mount. In June, they sent a letter to the company demanding better wages and annual bonuses. “We are being exploited. We are being deprived of the benefit that one used to get from government coal mining,” the letter stated in Hindi.
With demands unmet, almost 200 people went to the mines on June 26 in protest, according to first information reports subsequently filed by the police. The police baton-charged the workers, took 19 to jail, where they spent the next 52 days. Another eight who were leaders in the protest, including Saw, were slapped with cases and terminated from their jobs as well.
“Whenever we raise our voice, they suspend us or they terminate us or they put us in jail,” Saw said. “The company has spread fear everywhere. For us, this situation is worse than the pandemic.”
The Thriveni Sainik official said the protestors were misled. A wage hike was pending official communication, and the yearly bonus (which was not legally required) was discontinued after the venture suffered financial losses of Rs 150 crore the previous year, he said.
“If anyone comes up with any other demands ... I’m packing up and going,” a second Thriveni Sainik official said. When asked where the losses are coming from, the official’s immediate answer was “employment”. “I’m blaming myself to have accepted what I have accepted ... It is that bad.”
But migrant workers housed in two lacklustre buildings called the MDO colony echoed the complaints of the local workers. “If you make even one mistake, they throw you out right away,” said a dumper operator from Bihar’s Aryal district. None of them agreed to share their names, as they are currently employed, but all said they were at the June protest.
With a salary of roughly Rs 15,000, the dumper operator said that bonuses and overtime pay have stopped. Even the cafeteria food has worsened.
Another worker, overhearing, chimed in: “The simple truth is that this is Hitler’s regime here. No one will be able to help us. Not a press wala, nor the PM,” he said, walking away from the huddled group to have lunch.
Winds of change
It isn’t just private miners that are cutting back on coal jobs. Even Coal India Limited, the central-government owned behemoth which mines the most coal in the world, has seen a drastic drop in employment levels.
A senior Coal India official in Ranchi told me that total manpower in the company used to hover around 7 lakh for decades, before dropping to roughly 2.4 lakh this year. He estimated that in another four years, the number would drop below two lakh.
The company had cut back on fresh recruitments, other than of executives or certain specialities like doctors. Up to 20,000 Coal India employees retire every year, while only 1,500 are recruited, he said.
“Until 10 to 15 years ago, everything was fine,” a second senior Coal India official in Ranchi said. “Then it became this comparison between public and private – why is their cost so low and production so high.”
Many attributed Coal India’s lower profitability to a bloated workforce – and the grip of worker unions. “After the union problem, productivity was not there, output was not there, and manpower was too high,” a Hazaribagh coal official said, adding that union problems are mitigated in private operations. “Whoever does netagiri, they remove them. They just want money seeda.”
Ashok Yadav, deputy general secretary of the Jharkhand chapter of the All India Trade Union Congress, said, “If unorganised labour joins us, the management removes them from the job. Wherever the unions are strong, the outsourcing is less. Wherever we are weak, the outsourcing is more.” Yadav averaged that contract labourers get paid Rs 15,000 for work that previously earned Rs 60,000.
Now, even Coal India Limited has decided to outsource its mining operations to private MDOs, or mine developers and operators. There are currently 15 Coal India projects that have been identified for MDO agreements – five underground and 10 open cast, according to the Central Mine Planning and Design Institute, a Coal India subsidiary. According to Central Coalfields, there are 13 mines to be opened up in Jharkhand in the coming years, 10 of which will be in MDO mode.
When asked about the MDO push, stakeholders across the state echoed similar claims: “There is so much thirst,” said the second Coal India official. “And for whatever inherent reasons, (the government) is not fast enough. We need new processes.” The thirst, officials stated, was to decrease imports and extract as much coal as possible before international environmental pressure makes it too difficult.
He added that coal output at the time of nationalisation was about 80 million tonnes, which is now 600 million tonnes. The goal is to reach 100 million tonnes by 2024. “We did 500 million in 50 years and now they want 400 million in four years,” he said.
The disappearing Coal India worker
On the ground, Coal India officials speak enthusiastically about outsourcing. Sanjeev Kumar Deb Gupta, a senior surveyor of Central Coalfields’ New Birsa project in Ramgarh district, said mining increased from three lakh tonnes annually to 30 lakh after the company outsourced operations to a private firm, BGR Mining, on a ten-year contract in 2014.
Gupta’s desk, overrun with paperwork, sits in a slowly browning office that, like all government coal offices, displays the wage rate at its entrance. Even that sign is rusting quickly, the white chalked words bleeding down to the bottom. “The development will be a lot,” he said of the region’s domino of outsourced mines. “The more money in the market, the more the market will sparkle.”
But at the mine, workers have a completely different view of outsourcing. “We gave our land and get paid Rs 10,000 (a month),” said Lalu Munda, a contract worker and mechanic at New Birsa. “If we go with the unions, they set local strongmen on us. Do your work or leave – they give us this threat.”
Migrant workers don’t fare much better. Sunil Chaurasia, a driver who has worked in New Birsa since 2017, gets paid a set wage for the days he works. He said a strike in 2019 led to several drivers getting removed from their jobs, including him. Thankfully, he said, the company reinstated him after six months. “Now, there is no atmosphere for an andolan.”
Adjacent to the New Birsa mine is the Urimari mine, one of the few in the area that has seen little outsourcing. Central Coalfields’ miners continue to dominate its workforce.
New Birsa and Urimari may be only two kilometres apart, but the stories of their workers couldn’t be more different.
Among the 400 employees at the Urimari mine are C Charan Karmali, Dilip Ram, and Chaman Munda, all of whom received their jobs because their fathers were also employed with the subsidiary – a longstanding scheme that has now stopped. As members of the union Janta Mazdoor Sangh, their guaranteed work earns them between Rs 45,000 and Rs 85,000 per month.
Hearing about the conversations I had at the New Birsa mine, Ram said: “This could never happen to us.” But the three Central Coalfields’ miners acknowledged that the tradition of a well-paid, secure government coal job has dissipated, leaving in its place casual contract labour with private companies.
“Earlier my son would have gotten my job,” said Karmali, who works as a dumper operator at Urimari. But, just like the contract workers at New Birsa, “none of our sons will get to work with Coal India either.”
All photos and videos by Karishma Mehrotra.
Reporting for this story was supported by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.