A tip-off led police officer Indradeo Rajwar into the Nimiya Tola forests of Hazaribagh, in eastern India, hot on the trail of two men on a motorcycle carrying stolen coal.
As Rajwar closed in, the men dumped 1,200 kg of the dirty fossil fuel and escaped. Rajwar’s report on the incident in Jharkhand state documents a story of theft that is common across India’s main coal-mining areas.
“These forests are used as cover by people transporting stolen coal,” Rajwar said, adding that the perpetrators are mostly men aged between 18 and 35.
“It is difficult to police the entire area, but whenever we get information about coal being transported illegally, we take action,” he said.
The case registered at Churchu police station in Hazaribagh district – which has the second largest coal reserves in Jharkhand – is one of more than 200 filed across the country in the last financial year, government data show.
In the 2020-’21 financial year, state-run Coal India Limited, the world’s largest coal-mining firm, recovered Rs 126 million worth of stolen coal in raids it conducted jointly with the authorities.
Pilferage by impoverished local communities has no significant impact on overall coal or energy production, say analysts, but the problem of theft has come to the fore as Coal India beefs up production in a bid to meet rising power demand.
With India slowly switching away from climate-heating coal to renewable energy, rights activists have raised the issue of unemployment in mining hubs, which fuels the illegal coal trade, urging more job creation to support a green and fair transition.
In these areas, coal is the only income source for many poor families, some of whom also get their children collecting it to bring in extra cash, campaigners said.
Deepak Sahu, who quit a job in banking and moved home after his family gave up their land for a mine in Korba, one of India’s top coal-producing regions in eastern Chhattisgarh state, said the coal economy had robbed people of other options.
“The poor take (coal) only for lighting the fires in their homes to cook since they can’t afford gas, or for selling to eateries,” said Sahu, who is now an activist working for the rights of those displaced by mining.
Families like his, with no land left to sustain them, end up working at the bottom of the coal industry for the lowest pay, he noted. “There are no other jobs,” he added.
Theft or survival?
At the opencast mines in Jharkhand’s Jharia coalfield, men, women and children walk down the mines as early as 3 am where they collect coal until noon, before burning it to produce soft coke and loading it into sacks.
They sell it to middlemen who pay about Rs 100 per sack.
Many of them belong to a second or third generation of coal scavengers, and resent being identified as coal “thieves”.
“What we do is akin to picking leftover food at a rich man’s feast. How is it theft?” asked coal scavenger Sanjay Kumar Pandit, 35, as he broke up large pieces of coal with a hammer.
Pinaki Roy, a teacher who runs classes for children living in the coalfield to help them find alternate careers, said it was inaccurate to define these impoverished families – who number about 1,00,000 people in the district – as thieves.
“These families are just earning their livelihood from coal. They have nothing else here,” he said.
A number of security officials Context spoke to, working at various subsidiaries of Coal India, agreed that the problem is rooted in unemployment, and said leniency is often applied to poor local people who pick coal just to make ends meet.
One official, who requested anonymity as he was not authorised to speak to media, said many dig their own “rat-holes” to extract coal and end up paying bribes to avoid arrest.
“But in cases where there is organised theft, we use technology to track and stop it,” he added.
Another senior official with Bharat Coking Coal Limited, a Coal India subsidiary in Dhanbad, insisted that illegal coal-picking could not be justified in any circumstances.
Ravi Kumar, 16, thinks he would have been taller than his 5 feet had he not spent his childhood lugging baskets of coal on his head, like others in his settlement of coal scavengers.
“We just stay short,” he said, standing near an opencast mine in Jharia as the sun set and a frail man appeared from behind the rocks, pushing his bicycle with 10 sacks of coal tied to it, while a girl walked behind him carrying a basket of coal.
Growing up in neighbouring Chhattisgarh, activist Sahu recalled his grandfather receiving a token from the mining company entitling him to one bullock cart-load of coal for their household needs.
In the past, poor coal pickers were often referred to as “coal people”, selling the fuel to middlemen, local eateries and coke-manufacturing plants for low prices.
But after the collieries became state-owned in the 1970s, their activity started to be branded as theft, mining rights campaigners said.
Describing coal as “government property”, one senior security official, requesting anonymity, said it was hard to explain “to illiterate people that they have no rights to it”.
According to teacher Roy, in the last five to 10 years, more than 1,00,000 people became coal-pickers in Jharia after losing their jobs when mines started outsourcing most of their work.
“Many people picking coal illegally were earlier employed with coal mines. This is a social problem. By calling them coal thieves, you are doing away with your responsibility to give them jobs. They are poor, not involved in any racket,” Roy said.
Miners go viral
In May, a video showing a large number of people illegally digging and carrying coal from an open-cast mine owned by South Eastern Coalfield in Korba went viral on social media.
A police inquiry is now trying to establish the veracity of the video and investigating allegations of coal theft.
Santosh Singh, police-superintendent in Korba, which in 2022 registered more than 40 cases of coal theft, said the local mine is one of Asia’s largest, offering easy access to coal.
Locals deposit the sacks of coal they pick individually at collection centres, from where it is sold by middlemen to private steel and coking companies and hotels, he explained.
“This then becomes organised crime,” he said, adding that the “coal mafia” uses local people to earn huge profits.
But both researchers and campaigners said police cases tend to target the poor, while bigger gangs get away.
Ram Madhab Bhattacharjee, professor at the Indian Institute of Technology-Indian School of Mines, said large-scale illegal mining is a far bigger problem, requiring government attention.
“(It) not only causes loss of revenue running into crores of rupees but also results in loss of lives of hundreds of illegal miners and poor local people in accidents,” he said.
Recovery of illegally mined coal, however, is only a fraction of that rescued from local theft, government data show.
Policeman Rajwar said he understood the desperation of poor people living near mines.
“Selling coal brings the highest income for (them), even if it is just one sack,” he said.
“It is our job to stop it, but I do think of their circumstances very often – about their lack of choices.”