An Indian coal mine worker carries a basket of coal collected at a mine in the district of Dhanbad in the state of Jharkhand in June 2017. Photo: AFP/Sanjib Dutta
An Indian coal mine worker carries a basket of coal collected at a mine in the district of Dhanbad in the state of Jharkhand in June 2017. Photo: AFP / Sanjib Dutta

The following is an excerpt from the new book Total Transition: The Human Side of the Renewable Energy Revolution (RMB, 2018)

I spend all week with my family, scavenging coal from the nearby mine… my whole family is involved. —Raju Munda, coal cycle wallah

Giriraj Kumar pauses and prays to Kali, the Hindu goddess of death, each time he enters the underground coal mine. On a beam at the mine’s threshold hangs a framed, faded picture of Kali holding a sickle and a man’s severed head.

Giriraj, the young overman of the Argada underground coal mine in central Jharkhand, told us that no major accidents had happened in the four years he had overseen the mine, “Thanks to God.” Despite his luck, conditions inside the mine are frightening.

Following Giriraj, we descended 30 smooth, stone steps into the dark mine, each of us using only a sharp, pointed, wooden walking stick to keep our balance. Groundwater ran along the steps in some places, making the path slippery.

Inside the mine, the steps steeply descended into unlit gloom. We used hand-held flashlights roped to our bodies to light the way. Giriraj told us that the mine extends down a kilometer and a half, and around 400 people work there – about 75 per shift.

There is no elevator. Day after day, mine workers must walk down the slippery steps in darkness to the depths of the mine to extract coal. A mechanical pulley drags railway carts laden with extracted coal to the surface.

The painstaking labor that these workers perform each day to chip coal out of the depths of the earth supplies the raw material that power plants consume by the truckload to produce electricity for Indian households.

Hours before meeting Giriraj at the Argada mine, we were in Religara, an open-cast mine in the same region. Open-cast is the more common type of coal mining in India. It takes place above ground. When a coal seam – imagine an underground river of coal – is close enough to the surface, it is cheaper and faster to mine it using open-cast methods.

Workers first blast the surface with explosives to loosen it up, then dig out and remove the surface vegetation and the top layer of soil. This material, called the “overburden,” is piled in heaps near the mine. Workers then remove the coal close to the surface by digging, blasting to loosen the coal, and excavating it.

Religara looked like an asteroid had hit Earth and exploded, creating a huge crater and spilling piles of coal and overburden in every direction. The area appeared devastated. Large dump trucks drove up and down muddy access roads just wide enough to fit them, transporting huge chunks of coal removed from the active face of the mine below.

We visited Religara mine with Arun Kumar Singh, a trade union leader and an elected member of the panchayat (local government).

“Look at that road,” he fumed as a dump truck trundled past. “It’s so narrow. If there was an accident, that dump truck and its driver would go over the face of the cliff.”

Arun told us that there are many critical safety issues with mines in this region, and standards are lax. We walked along the main access road to the workers’ rest hall, which stood on a flat area at the top of the mine.

“Just this year, someone died under a dump truck right here,” he said, pointing to the road that led down into the mine. “Now they have built some basic fences to cordon off areas where workers often stand.”

Both underground and open-cast coal mining in India are dangerous. Although Giriraj claimed he hadn’t seen any accidents in his time at the Argada underground mine, an analysis of a recent annual report by Coal India Limited (CIL), the owner of the Argada mine, reveals that, on average, a coal miner has died every three days for the past 40 years in India.

During Sandeep’s career as a journalist, one of his first assignments as a reporter for the Daily News & Analysis (DNA) newspaper was to investigate coal mining deaths. Through his research, he discovered that the picture is actually much worse: on average, a coal miner dies every day. The official numbers are grossly under-reported because coal mining companies do a poor job of recording the number of deaths.

For example, sometimes contractors don’t report to CIL the deaths of contract workers who die on the job, which means these deaths don’t show up in CIL’s official death statistics. And it’s not just fatalities. Although CIL claims it is constantly improving mining safety, more than 5,000 workers suffered serious injuries in the last 40 years: some lost their hands; others became paralyzed.

One reason for these accidents is the lax safety standards that Arun described. “While all the mechanisms are in place, proper safety procedures are not always followed by the company,” Arun said.

India has a standing committee on safety in coal mines, made up of CIL officials and trade union representatives and headed by the federal minister of coal. At every meeting, someone raises coal mine safety as an issue. B.K. Rai, vice president of a prominent coal industry trade union, raised the issue in a March 2015 committee meeting.

Upset about the poor quality of safety equipment, he said, “Substandard quality safety equipment like cap lamp, and shoes are being provided to the workers and officials which was a serious compromise on the front of safety.”

Despite some improvements, Indian coal mines remain very unsafe for workers. Recently, as the world prepared to celebrate New Year’s Eve at the end of 2016, an open-cast coal mine collapsed in Jharkhand, killing 23 miners.

The dangerous coal mining industry is responsible for producing about 70 per cent of the total electricity used in India today. And the Indian government is dependent on coal for more than just electricity generation.

To start with, the government owns most of the coal industry. Coal mining in India used to be done mainly by private operators, but in the early 1970s, the government of India started to nationalize the coal industry.