‘They stole our jobs and life’: Anger and desperation in India’s coal belt

People living in the coal belt in West Bengal say their demands are unheard as India elects its government.

Amar Baran Paul
Amar Baran Paul, a retired ECL employee, with his 29-year-old disabled son in the yard of their house in Harishpur, West Bengal [Valeria Mongelli/Al Jazeera]

West Bengal and Jharkhand, India – Amar Baran Paul can never forget how the ground below him shook and more than 25 houses around him collapsed four years ago in Harishpur town in eastern India’s West Bengal state.

Harishpur is located near the Madhabpur opencast coal mine — where coal is extracted from the surface of the ground and not by digging the ground — operated by Eastern Coalfield Limited (ECL). It is in the Asansol-Raniganj coal belt in West Bengal’s Paschim Bardhaman district, about a six-hour drive from the state capital, Kolkata.

The belt, which has 146 villages, has been extensively mined since the 17th century, and land subsidence incidents like the one in Harishpur, which occurred when the ground near the opencast mine collapsed, are common in the area.

“In July 2020, the road nearing our township suddenly sank and cracks began emerging on houses near this road. Soon after, we could feel tremors and the walls of some houses began falling,” Paul, a retired ECL employee, told Al Jazeera. “More than 20 people lost their homes overnight.”

Swaraj Das, an activist from the Project Affected People’s Association (PAPA), looks at a house affected by a landslide in Harishpur, West Bengal [Valeria Mongelli/Al Jazeera]

Sitting on the verandah of his home where the cracks on the walls were clearly visible, Paul said more than 400 residents were forced to flee Harishpur after the land subsidence. Paul’s family found a house on rent near the town but the steep rent made them return to their damaged home.

“I have a son who is 29 and disabled. I have to prioritise his safety. Living in Harishpur I constantly worry that if the ground sinks again because of the opencast mine, my son’s life will be in danger,” said Paul, who belongs to the Jadhav caste, falling under the Other Backward Class (OBC) — a collective term used by the Indian government to classify castes that are educationally or socially backward. The village also houses people from Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) — other government classifications for historically disadvantaged communities.

Accentuating the sense of vulnerability among these communities in Harishpur is a sense of neglect.

“The state government and politicians came here four years ago promising support and encouragement. But since then our voices remain unheard. Our demands for compensation for the land we have lost and houses damaged have also not been met,” said Paul, explaining how they have held hunger strikes, boycotted local elections and protested by blocking national highways to ensure their demands are met. All in vain.

Asha Bauri, 30, stands on the terrace of her house near a coal mine operated by Integrated Coal Mining Limited in Rakhakura, West Bengal, India [Valeria Mongelli/Al Jazeera]

An hour’s drive from Harishpur, 71-year-old Manik Bauri and his family live in the village of Rakhakura, which is also in the Paschim Bardhaman district, near a mine operated by Integrated Coal Mining Limited (ICML), owned by RP-Sanjiv Goenka Group.

“Since the opencast mine was developed on our land, we have all become land losers. We’ve lost what we own to coal companies and in return are left with polluted air to breathe, toxic water to drink, a truckload of health problems and no jobs,” Bauri told Al Jazeera.

“Politicians want the money from the coal projects. They don’t care about us.”

Bauri’s house lies adjacent to the mine and is one among about 500 houses in Rakhapura. A smell similar to that of ash after a wildfire engulfs the atmosphere in the village and coal dust envelops the floor of every terrace and verandah.

“Our health gets affected by inhaling the coal dust-tinted air. Diseases like tuberculosis and eczema are common here. Even if we shut the windows, the [coal] dust comes in and when there is blasting at the mine, our entire house shakes,” Madhivi Bauri, Manik’s 45-year-old sister, told Al Jazeera.

Samit Kumar Carr, secretary-general of the Occupational Safety & Health Association of Jharkhand (OSHAJ), a nonprofit that works with coal miners, said unprotected open cast, underground coal mining sites and coal-based power generation plants pose specific health risks to workers and the community living near the mines.

“Many of them who inhale coal dust which contains carbon over both short and long periods suffer from coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP), which is an irreversible, incurable, and progressive occupational lung disease, representing a specific form of pneumoconiosis,” he told Al Jazeera.

Traditionally, the coal belt is also home to some of India’s poorest communities, which suffer from malnutrition. That makes them more vulnerable to tuberculosis if they are affected by CWP, Carr said.

Madhivi Bauri’s 30-year-old daughter-in-law Asha Bauri said she fears for their children’s future and hopes to leave the village.

“Besides the health effects, there are no jobs here. In many households, young people have begun leaving the village. We were all once able to cultivate crops on this land but now the soil is polluted and we are left jobless,” she said.

Manik Bauri, 71, second left, Asha Bauri, 30, third left, and Madhivi Bauri, 45, right, in their house in Rakhakura, West Bengal [Valeria Mongelli /Al Jazeera]

The West Bengal constituencies where Harishpur’s Paul and Rakhakura’s Bauris live voted on May 13 in the fourth phase of India’s mammoth seven-phase election which began on April 19.

The state is currently under the rule of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC), which is competing against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main governing party ruling federally.

Staring at the mine — which resembles a low-lying hill — near his house and describing how the mine lights up with fire at night after blasting ends just before sunset, Manik Bauri lamented that no politician cares about them.

“They stole our jobs and life by putting up a mine here,” he said.

Coal mining
The open-cast mine operated by ICML near Rakhakura, West Bengal [Valeria Mongelli/Al Jazeera]

Demands unheard but dependent on the coal industry

India’s coal industry was nationalised by then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1973. The blanket order applied to all the coal mines in the country and ensured that coal mining would be exclusively reserved for the public sector. However, the Coal Mines (Nationalisation) Act of 1973 was amended in 1993 to allow limited private-sector participation in coal mining.

Nationalisation formalised the industry and, in turn, boosted the black sedimentary rock’s monetary value politically, according to Gareth Price, a senior research fellow at the Irish think tank The Azure Forum for Contemporary Security Strategy.

“Earlier, a lot of local groups were in charge of the different mines but after nationalisation, there was a degree of organisation and the money went to the national government,” he said.

“But the debate around boosting coal was framed around the fact that people in India need access to power and hence coal-fired power stations have to exist,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that the real reason which is monetary, continues to be masked.

In theory, cheap renewable energy could replace India’s dependence on coal. But at the moment, that is a long way off for some of the country’s most coal-dependent regions.

“However in the big coal belts like Raniganj in West Bengal and in the Indian state of Jharkhand, there are few other sources of revenue. So entire villages, businesses and politicians depend on the coal sector to earn a livelihood. This makes phasing out coal a challenge since livelihoods are at stake,” he said.

India is currently the second largest producer of coal. To cut down on coal imports, the Modi government has been leasing out coal mines to private companies. According to the country’s Ministry of Coal, 104 blocks have been auctioned under commercial mining.

Coal India, a state-run near-monopoly, has also ramped up production, with 703.20 million tonnes being produced during the 2022-23 financial year compared with 622.63 million tonnes being produced in 2021-22.

The government has also cancelled many passenger trains — the lifeblood of rural India which provides cheap travel options for its poor — to expedite the passage of trains ferrying coal from mines to power plants.

Coal siding
A truck drives past a coal siding rail track near the railway station in Barabani, West Bengal [Valeria Mongelli/Al Jazeera]

A career in illegal coal smuggling

Anup Das, 22, who lives in a village along West Bengal’s Barabani railway station in Paschim Bardhaman district, welcomed the coal projects. The coal sliding along this track is a private project.

“My entire livelihood depends on the functioning of India’s coal sector,” he told Al Jazeera.

Clad in a fake branded T-shirt and surrounded by his friends near the railway track, Das explained how, due to the lack of other jobs in the region, everyone is directly or indirectly involved in working in the coal sector, even if it harms their health and the environment — and even if they lose their land in the process.

“But all of us cannot get directly employed by the coal companies since we are illiterate or under-skilled. So we have found a career in the illegal coal smuggling business where we carry bags of coal we steal from the mines to factories on bikes or cycles,” Das said.

“It is the only way to earn money to put food on our plates.”

A truck unloads coal at a coal siding rail track near the railway station in Barabani, West Bengal [Valeria Mongelli/Al Jazeera]

According to a 2019 report by the Press Trust of India news agency, throughout the Asansol-Raniganj belt, in about 3,500 illegal coal mines, at least 35,000 people are directly employed (work in the mines), while another 40,000 get indirect employment (involved in supplying the coal to factories or are involved in handling coal hauling). Illegal mines do not have the government’s permission to exist. People working in them are also not given any official employment papers.

Munna Jha*, 35, a coal trader in the region, told Al Jazeera that these days, much of the coal stolen by people like Das originates from legal mines. He claimed that political parties benefit from the illegal coal business — getting cuts of the illicit profits. Al Jazeera could not independently confirm this claim.

“In these open cast mines, as soon as the blasting process — done by the mining companies which have won tenders from the government to mining for them — takes place, over 200 people [in each site] assemble at a spot and illegally collect the coal. They load the coal on cycles or bikes and transfer it to private warehouses from where they are loaded on trucks and transported to iron and steel factories,” Jha said.

The illegal coal typically fetches 30 percent less than the price of the legal coal — but it is still better than no income for Das and others like him.

Coal mining
A man allegedly carries sacks of illegally mined coal on a bicycle in the Asansol-Raniganj belt in West Bengal [Valeria Mongelli/Al Jazeera]

West Bengal Chief Minister Banerjee has repeatedly promised to end the illegal coal trade and increased police checks on vehicles suspected of smuggling coal.

Local daily The Statesman reported that, during an election rally in Raniganj on May 10, Modi’s Home Minister Amit Shah alleged that the TMC was linked with the coal mafia.

But Narendra Nath Chakraborty, district president of the TMC, claimed that “it is the BJP which encourages the illegal coal mining in Raniganj coalfield area”.

“Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has taken a strong stance against the coal mafia after she came to power in 2011,” he claimed.

Swaraj Das, an activist from the Project Affected People’s Association — a group comprising people who have been affected by coal mines — emphasised the need for investment in education and jobs in the region so people living near mines can end their dependence on the coal industry. But politicians across parties, he alleged, benefitted from the corruption in the coal industry.

“This is why they are not actually taking steps to phase out coal, which is harmful to the environment and is also stealing people’s land,” he told Al Jazeera.

Swaraj Das
Swaraj Das, an activist from the Project Affected People’s Association (PAPA), at the office of his NGO in Bogra, West Bengal [Valeria Mongelli/Al Jazeera]

“We have been protesting against open cast mining for years and currently spend time documenting the sordid living conditions of people living near the mines, and the illegal activities taking place in these mines to raise awareness about the dangers of coal mining,” he said.

“India needs to focus on continuing to invest in green energy like solar panels or generating energy through the sea. These methods will not displace people and make them lose their land either,” he said.

‘Give Adivasis more power’

There has also been pressure on India from the West and the United Nations to phase out coal to tackle climate change.

While Prime Minister Modi made lofty promises at the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, triggering hope among environmentalists and activists that most of India’s abundant reserves of low-quality coal would never get to the surface, the country’s dependence on coal continues to grow.

In 2023, growth in coal-fired electricity generation outpaced green energy output for the first time since 2019. According to Grid India, power generation from coal and lignite between 2023 and 2024 rose by 13.9 percent compared with a 9.7 percent increase in renewable energy sources.

Meanwhile, some Adivasi communities — India’s Indigenous people, many of whom live in tribes — have taken matters into their own hands and have begun stopping the expansion of coal projects, in an effort to tackle climate change and secure their land rights.

In the village of Hirapur in Jharkhand’s Dhanbad district, about a three-hour drive from the border of West Bengal, Mangal Murmu, who is an Adivasi, described how the community fought against the Deucha Pachami coal mine project, a public project under the West Bengal Power Development Corporation Limited (WBPDCL), which Chief Minister Banerjee has been trying to revive since 2021.

“As Adivasis, we have a culture where we get together and play tumac [traditional instrument]. This is like our call sign for trouble in the village. So when we heard an opencast mine was going to be constructed on our land which could displace us, we played the tumac and went out to protest,” Murmu told Al Jazeera.

More than 9,000 Indigenous people have protested against the trans-state opencast mining project. Those protests have slowed down the progress of the implementation of the $297m project as developers have not been able to reach the land near the Adivasi community. If fully implemented, it could become Asia’s largest coal mine and the second largest in the world.

Coal minig
Mangal Murmu holds a bow and arrow to display how Adivasi people drove the Deucha Pachami coal mine’s owners away from their land in Hirapur, Jharkhand [Valeria Mongelli/Al Jazeera]

Sitting along a glistening stream that passes through his hut, Murmu pulled out his bow and arrow and displayed how they used it to drive coal mine developers away from their land.

“There is a thought in India that where Adivasis are, there is something below the ground they live on. So coal companies will come to grab our land, but we are steadfast in our fight for our rights and land,” he said.

Maku Hazda, 32, who lives in Sagar Bandi village, not too far from Hirapur, led the Adivasi women’s fight against the project.

“We stood in a line on our land and had policemen beat us. But we used sticks, bows and arrows and fought them back. I was even arrested but have now been granted bail. Our fight for land will continue till we die,” she said.

Maku Hazda, 32, an Adivasi woman who fought against the Deucha Pachami coal mine project, during an interview in Sagar Bandi, West Bengal [Valeria Mongelli/Al Jazeera]

For Kkokan Mardi, 53, such coal projects also pose long-term questions.

“The government keeps saying that if there is coal, there will be electricity. But what happens once this coal under the land we are living on ends? What happens to all these expensive projects?” Mardi, who also lives in Sagar Bandi, told Al Jazeera. “As people from Indigenous communities, we value nature and its resources and installing mines which lead to land grabbing, health issues, environmental degradation and climate change, is not the way forward.”

“Give the Adivasis more power and a seat in the government and we will bring about sustainable solutions which also protect our fundamental rights and the climate,” he said.

Kkokan Mardi, 53, an Adivasi man who fought against the Deucha Pachami coal mine project, in Sagar Bandi, West Bengal [Valeria Mongelli/Al Jazeera]

*Names changed over safety concerns

Source: Al Jazeera