One morning in mid-January, a few days after 23 workers were killed in an accident in Eastern Coalfields’ Lalmatia mine in Jharkhand, several young men had gathered outside the main entrance to the facility. A second group huddled at Zero Point, a pillar at the centre of the mining project area.

The men, residents of villages affected by the project, blamed Eastern Coalfields for the December 29 accident. On that day, several tonnes of excavated earth collapsed on the mine workers, all of whom were migrants hired from poor regions in neighbouring states by a contractor. More than three weeks after the incident, the bodies of five workers have still not been recovered.

“The accident occurred because the mine management forced those migrant workers to continue mining work at a dangerous place, taking advantage of them,” said Sikandar Ansari, a resident of Neema, a village near the Lalmatia mines. “They were able to pressure those workers to work in a dangerous mine because the migrants lacked local contacts and support to back them.”

Ansari added: “‘Do the work, or quit your job,’ they must have told them. If it had been local workers at the site, who could take a stand, perhaps things would not have come to this end.”

Despite the precarious conditions, Ansari and the other young men around him were hoping to get jobs at the facility.

They intended to enforce a chakka-jaam, or road blockade, till the Eastern Coalfields management heeded their demand to grant them jobs.

As the men explained their woes, a dozen Central Industrial Safety Force personnel, wielding sticks, stood by, listening in.

The young men were worried that police cases would soon be registered against them.

“It is the same sequence,” said Ansari with a sigh. “If one of us goes and asks ECL [Eastern Coalfields Limited] management for jobs, they set 20-30 CISF [Central Industrial Safety Force] men on us.”

Santhal, Ansari youth from villages nearby tried to block roads days after the mine accident, demanding jobs in the same mines. (Photo credit: Anumeha Yadav)

Mining-led development

The Rajmahal Coal Mining project in Lalmatia was set up in 1989 as a Rs 1,000-crore public sector venture following an agreement between the public sector unit Coal India Limited, and the Canadian Commercial Corporation, an export development corporation of the Canadian government, with additional funds from the Canadian International Development Agency. It is administered by Eastern Coalfields, one of Coal India’s eight subsidiaries.

The project, which at the time was India’s largest open cast mine, was expected to bring employment and development to Godda, one of India’s poorest districts.

More than 18 villages were affected by the project. Residents who lost two acres of land were to be given jobs in the project. But this provision left out smaller landholders and sharecroppers.

There were few ancillary spinoffs for the local economy because MetChem, a Canadian multinational was contracted to provide machinery for the plant. The company still has Rs 174 crore loan from the Export Development Corporation Canada, according to its annual report for 2015-’16.

The Rajmahal mines project achieved its objective of providing coal to the National Thermal Power Corporation’s Kahalgaon and Farakka thermal power plants. Every day, nearly 30 train-loads of coal are despatched to the two power plants located in Bihar and West Bengal through a special rail siding.

But more than 20 years on, the Godda district headquarters has not been connected to a railway line. The nearest railway link is Jasidih in Deoghar district, two hours away by road.

‘Pushed us into darkness’

The Lalmatia open cast mine produced 17 million tonnes of coal last year, close to half of Eastern Coalfields’ annual production in 2016.

But local residents want to know what it has got them.

“Many of us have bachelor’s degrees and even have experience of working in coal mines in Dhanbad and Ramgarh,” said Arvind Kumar, a resident of Mahagama village. “But for the past four years, the mining companies in Lalmatia have not hired anyone from villages in the project area.”

Majrul Haque, secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions in Godda, said that the mining contractors, to whom most operations are now outsourced, preferred to hire workers from neighbouring states.

“They [mining contractors] go to Bihar, MP, Uttar Pradesh to hire youth from there because they want slaves, not workers,” said Haque. “They know local residents will never be slaves to the company. At most, they employ a handful of local residents as security guards temporarily.”

The conditions in the project-affected villages are dire, he added. In Neema, Mahagama, Hijukita villages near the project, there is coal dust in the food people eat, inside their clothes, and in their eyes and throats. A constant industrial din goes on day and night.

More than 40,000 tonnes of coal is produced and crushed here every day less than 200 metres from the homes of local residents.

Coal dust lines the walls and insides of houses in Neema village. (Photo credit: Anumeha Yadav)

Jamshed Ali, 36, lives in Neema, a village surrounded by coal crushers to its West, a massive dump of excavated earth to its north and east, and a huge coal-dust dump and crushers to the south.

His father’s family owned three acres of land, which is now part of the project. Though one of his relatives got a job in Eastern Coalfields in the 1990s, once the land they grew food on was taken by the project, the rest of the family was left with no means of subsistence.

Ali keeps a folder of documents carefully next to his bed. It holds an admit card of his school exams, a certificate, a marksheet with a high score of 733/900 – over 80% – in mining training, and several legal documents.

The documents show that Ali trained as a mining sirdar – a shot-firer who assembles, positions and detonates explosives at mining sites – at the government Industrial Training Institute in Lalmatia between 2005 and 2009. But along with his batchmates, Ali spent the next five years fighting a legal battle in the Jharkhand High Court.

“It was a three and a half year-long course –18 months of theory, and two years of training,” recounted Ali. “Twelve of us 15 students, who passed the theory class, went on to train without pay for over three years in Eastern Coalfields mines all over West Bengal – in Chinakuri, Satgram, Rotibati, JK Nagar and Nimcha. But when we applied for job openings in ECL, or Bharat Coking Coal Limited [Coal India’s biggest subsidiary in Jharkhand], we were told our certificates are not valid, and were rejected for one reason or another.”

Jamshed Ali, with Neema village behind him. (Photo credit: Anumeha Yadav)

Ali accused Coal India officials of corruption in hiring workers. “If government-issued certificates are not valid, then why do they set up such institutes and ruin our future and push us into darkness?” he asked.

Two years ago, Ali found some work as a civil contractor for small-scale works with Eastern Coalfields after he began working as a “khaas aadmi”, a special assistant for Vijay Hansda, member of Parliament from Rajmahal constituency.

“But, any day, I would take a job in mining over a contractor’s work,” he said.

Mahtab Ansari, 23, has worked in mines in Dhanbad and Palamu in Jharkhand since he was 14. He said that he had tried but failed to get even an unskilled worker’s job with the mining and transporter contract companies in the area.

“The company officials say that the local boys from Godda are criminals,” said Ansari.

The statement irked Ali.

“What else will we turn to if not illegal work and crime out of this frustration?” he snapped.

What the company gives back

The raw deal being handed out to Lalmatia’s residents reflects in the company’s figures as well.

According to its 2015-’16 report, Eastern Coalfields had a gross sales turnover of Rs 13,514 crores. Its profit after taxes was Rs 868 crores. Of this, the company allotted Rs 62.6 crores towards its Corporate Social Responsibility obligations, as it was required to by Coal India rules.

However, though Lalmatia open cast mine produced 17 million tonnes of coal last year, close to half of Eastern Coalfields’ annual production, the area was allocated only Rs 4.4 crores of the company’s Corporate Social Responsibility corpus – not even one-tenth of the total funds.

The bulk of this allocation – Rs 2.3 crores – was allotted to construct a new Industrial Training Institute, which will come up next to the building at Lalmatia where Jamshed Ali and others studied. The next large chunk of Rs 1.6 crore was allotted to supply drinking water in the area through tankers, as mining has ruined surface drinking water sources in Neema and other villages.

Children push sacks of coal scrap on bicycles in Neema village. Lalmatia mines account for nearly half of ECL's production, but got less than a tenth of its welfare funds.(Photo credit: Anumeha Yadav).

Temples and ‘kalash’ bin

The company allocated just a few thousand rupees towards healthcare for residents in Lalmatia. People in the region suffer from respiratory illnesses and allergies, and seasonal colds, cough and the flu. Dr UK Chaudhary, a medical officer with Eastern Coalfields, says he receives 15-20 patients every day who complain of such illnesses.

Of the Rs 62 crores of its Corporate Social Responsibility allocation, Eastern Coalfields allotted Rs 50,000 for the entire year to hold health camps in Lalmatia villages. Of this, only Rs 32,000 was spent in 2015-’16.

Oddly, that same year, Eastern Coalfields gave Rs 47.9 lakhs – nearly 100 times the amount it allotted for health facilities in Lalmatia – to installing organic waste converters at Dakshineswar temple in Kolkata, Tarapith temple in Birbhum, West Bengal, Baidyanath temple in Deoghar district of Jharkhand, and to clean a temple pond at Baba Baidyanatah Dham temple in Deoghar and instal dustbins around the pond shaped like kalashes – the vessel used for prayer rituals.

“This was done to help manage the flower offerings and other waste at the temples under Swachch Bharat Abhiyan as it creates a lot of waste problem in temple towns,” said SA Yadav, public information officer and chief manager (personnel), Eastern Coalfields Limited.

Yadav denied that mining contractors were overlooking local youth for employment.

“The two large mining contractors, Mahalaxmi, and Rajmahal Coal Mines Project, employ around 1,500 workers of which I believe 1,000 are locals as we suggest that mining contractors hire two-thirds of total workers locally,” he said.

However, he added that the Eastern Coalfields’ recommendation is not binding “because this would not be feasible”.

He added that from the new financial year, a larger chunk of Rs 80 crores, as a percentage of royalty from the coal it mines in Lalmatia, will be allotted to Godda under the new District Mineral Foundation Rules.

Scavengers in their land

In the centre of Neema, away from where the educated youth were protesting for jobs, a group of men, women and children sifted through heaps of broken coal, as they do most afternoons. Several Santhal, Yadav and Momin Muslim farmers, who have no land and received no education, have turned to scavenging and selling scraps of coal in order to survive.

The women and children scavenge coal, earning Rs 15-20 in a day. The men take coal scrap on bicycles to Rajaon, 15 km away, four times a week, earning less than half of the state’s minimum wage. (Photo credit: Anumeha Yadav).

They sell what they scavenge from the coal dump at one edge of the village for Rs 10 to Rs 20 for each small heap. This coal is purchased by koilawallas, other landless residents who push 200 kg to 400 kg sacks of coal, several times their own weight, on bicycles to sell it to local dhabas, and in villages 10 km-15 km away, earning half of what is the official daily wage of Rs 260.

Government authorities describe this work as illegal, which has led to Eastern Coalfields officials to refer to the villagers as criminals. But as Sanisa Khatun, a widow sorting through a heap of coal pointed out, most people earned barely enough to even buy them soap.

Landless farmers from villages around Lalmatia mines push coal scrap on bicycles on the road to Godda, Jharkhand. (Photo credit: Anumeha Yadav).