Suresh and Srikumari live a very hard life. Suresh does stone picking work for the private contractor – after an area is blasted to loosen up the coal for mining, he picks stones out of piles of coal. “I have to work 26 days every month – at least ten hours daily,” he told us. Since Suresh is a member of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), a prominent national-level union, he isn’t forced to work for more than ten hours a day. “People who aren’t part of the union have to work for up to 15 hours a day,” he said.
The first day we met Suresh, he had come back from a 6.00 am to 4.00 pm stone picking shift.
That morning, he and his co-workers had manually removed 700 kilograms of stones. Suresh said that his workplace has no facilities for workers – including no toilets.
The next day, when we came back to meet Suresh, he was getting ready to go to a 2.00 pm shift. He told us that he’d gotten up at 6.00 am to defecate in the fields and then had gone to take a bath in the jordia (lake) one and a half kilometres away. To reach the lake, he had to cross rough terrain and walk through a coal mine. There’s no other source of water for bathing, because the pond by Suresh’s house is too dirty.
The basti has one small municipal water tap, which is the only source of drinking water for the 800 inhabitants. Suresh told us that the water only comes out at night for a few hours, and every family gets one or two buckets of drinking water. “Even if we’re tired from work, we have to stand in the queue at night for one or two hours to fill water,” Suresh said.
“It takes more than one and a half hours to take a bath,” he added. And the water in the lake, while better than the pond, isn’t clean either – contaminated groundwater unearthed in coal mining operations is disposed of around the mine and often leaches into the lake.
When Suresh came back from the lake that day it was almost 8.00 am. Half an hour later, he had breakfast. “We generally eat watery rice with raw chili and onion and salt for breakfast. Only sometimes we can afford to eat dal (lentils) and potatoes,” he said.
Poor people like Suresh eat the same food every meal.
“We can’t afford to eat vegetables every day. Sometimes if we have some extra money, then only we’re able to eat vegetables,” he told us. “The day I have some money, I buy spinach. I really like it a lot. I also like eggplant,” he said with a wistful smile.
After having breakfast, he helps his wife with household chores and then has a little extra time to watch TV, which he described as his only source of entertainment. When we met Suresh around 12.45 pm, he had just finished his lunch – the same watery rice with raw onions and chili that he had in the morning. Suresh’s shift would start at 2.00 pm and go until 12.00 am. He told us that he works without any break during his ten-hour shift. If he’s lucky, he gets a five-minute tea break.
If Suresh’s life is tough, Srikumari’s is no better. She gets up even earlier than Suresh, waking up every day at 4.00 am, starting the traditional culha (hearth), and then going to the fields to defecate. In the basti, there’s no closed toilet, and for generations the residents have been defecating in the open. In India, women get up very early in the morning to go to the fields so they can avoid potential harassment from men.
Once Srikumari comes back from the fields, she cleans the house, cooks and helps the children get ready to go to school. “I clean the dirty utensils from the previous night – first by the water in the nearby pond and then in water that we have stored in the house. Then I broom the house and throw away the garbage,” she said.
It doesn’t end there – Srikumari doesn’t have even a minute to rest. “Even if I have a high fever, I have to work. I have no option,” she said. In the past, she scavenged coal from nearby abandoned mines and sold it in town. When we met her, because of her illness, Srikumari was not able to work far from her house. Now, instead of coal scavenging, she has started raising livestock. She raises pigs, ducks and a few chickens. Protecting them from dogs and vultures comprises much of her day’s work.
Suresh and Srikumari told us that even at night, they don’t get any rest.
“It’s very hot inside the house because of the underground fires. Even with the fan running, we have a hard time sleeping,” Srikumari whispered. Suresh added, “The area is so smoky and polluted. It takes a few hours before I get some sleep.”
Living in the area has also become a bane for them socially. Suresh told us the story of an incident that happened to his family a few years ago. Three of his brothers also live in the basti. Together, they had arranged a marriage for his eldest brother’s son. Arranged marriage is still a common practice amongst the majority of people in India. After the marriage was fixed, the bride’s father – who lived in West Bengal – visited their basti to meet the elders of the family. The morning he arrived, after breakfast, Suresh took him to the lake for bathing. After that, the bride’s father called off the marriage. “I took him to the jordia through the coal mine. He came back and said that his daughter will find it hard to stay here.”
“You face so many problems living in the basti. What keeps you from moving to Belgoria?” Sandeep asked.
“There are no employment opportunities in the new place,” Suresh replied. “Here we have employment, but we’re slowly dying due to health issues. In Belgoria, without employment, we will quickly die due to hunger.”
Poor people like Suresh know the importance of employment more than most others do. An emotional Suresh told us, “You won’t understand what work means for people like me. If I don’t work, I won’t be able to live.” Suresh only studied until the ninth grade. After that, he had to give up his studies and work. Srikumari never attended school.
Suresh did try to leave Jharia and find work elsewhere – once.
In 1985, then in his early 20s, Suresh wasn’t able to find work in Jharia for months. He travelled all around the area in search of work, even going to the neighbouring state of West Bengal. “The whole time I was unemployed, I couldn’t even afford two square meals, as my father also had limited income. It was the hardest days of my life.”
Finally, after trying for almost a year, he got work near Govindpur Road, which is now part of the state of Jharkhand. “I got a job working in a road construction company, and I was delighted,” he said. “My two tasks were to lay stone chips and clean the newly constructed roads. But soon, I realised that I had been made a bonded labourer,” he told us, a shadow crossing his face.
Armed security men would stand behind Suresh and his co-workers while they worked, and make sure they didn’t take even a second’s break. Every day, Suresh started work at seven a.m. and had to work for almost 15 hours. “We were beaten up if we asked for breaks,” Suresh said. If any of the workers missed even a day’s work, the owner would cut days of their salary. A horrified Suresh said, “I worked there for a week, but I didn’t like it at all. I somehow escaped and returned to the basti.”
After years searching for fixed employment, Suresh finally got another job in the coal industry in 1993, as a truck loader. Suresh looked at both of us and said, “You won’t understand what unemployment and hunger means. If I move to Belgoria in the current conditions, I’ll face both.”
Srikumari, who was sitting next to Suresh, interrupted him. “Anyway, the government hasn’t given us anything so far,” she said with fire in her voice. “JRDA is supposed to make houses in Belgoria and Nipania. Belgoria is full and there are no places left. We’ve only been surveyed but not offered any cards.” This is the case for the majority of people in this basti. “On top of it,” added Srikumari, “we’ve been verbally threatened to leave the basti.”
Excerpted with permission from Total Transition: The Human Side Of The Renewable Energy Revolution, Sandeep Pai and Savannah Carr-Wilson, Rocky Mountain Books.