Devastating Photos Of India's Illegal Coal Mines

india coal

Photo: Kevin Frayer/AP Photo

In energy-hungry India, demand for coal has increased while production has remained fairly steady, causing coal prices to surge in recent years.The lack of reform and rising demand have spawned a seedy underbelly of “coal mafia”, and a class of workers that illegally scavenge the mines for coal.

*The nationalization of India’s coal industry made it legal for just the central or state government to authorise coal mining.

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That basically means coal can only be mined by government-owned companies or private companies that have been granted a lease by the government. But there are many poor Indian’s that haven’t benefited from riches in the mining sector and that choose to dig the open-pit mines illegally.

Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt at the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies explains:

“Illegal mining takes three main forms in eastern India: small shallow-dug village mines on private land, mining on re-opened abandoned or orphaned government mines, and scavenging on the leasehold land of official operating mines. 

This is just based on the source; there may not be any major difference in their production amounts. There are also a few “unregistered” mines: those that somehow escaped enlistment during nationalisation and became illegitimate.”

And Indian policymakers have been mired in coal scams and illegal mining themselves.

India’s comptroller and auditor general (CAG) has accused the government of losing $210 billion in potential revenues by selling coal fields to top industrialists and giving the companies “undue benefits” in what has been dubbed the “Coalgate scandal”. And some officials have been accused of profiting from the illegal exports of iron ore.

Indian state-owned miner Coal India has repeatedly warned investors that the proliferation of illegal mines could see its stockpiles diminish.

We drew on images by Daniel Berehulak at Getty Images and Kevin Frayer at AP Images to give you a glimpse of India’s massive illegal mining sector.

It’s not unusual to see women and children work the unsafe mines with the most rudimentary tools. Most are drawn to it in the hopes of earning a better income. And with Indian coal demand expected to rise to 1 billion tonnes by 2017, illegal mining is unlikely to die out anytime soon.

*Note: The piece was updated to include the nationalization of India’s coal industry.

People are seen carrying baskets of illegally scavenged coal from an open-cast mine in Bokapahari, a village in the Eastern Indian state of Jharkhand.

A young woman trips as she carries a large basket illegally mined coal.

The scavengers often work with rudimentary tools and in extremely unsafe conditions.

A worker climbs a rickety ladder while carrying about 132 pounds of coal that is supported by a head strap.

Tunnels in these coal mines go three-hundred feet underground.

A miner makes his way through one such tunnel at a mine in the district of Jaintia Hills, Meghalaya, India.

But people from all over the country seek out such work that reportedly pays $150 per week. This is double the national average of about $75 per week.

Children are also exploited at these mines. An Indian non-profit Impulse believes 70,000 child miners worked in the mines in Jaintia Hills. The state government however rejected this figure and put it at about 222 workers.

12-year old Abdul Kayum works at a coal depot in the North East state of Meghalaya.

Schools that offer education for free have a hard time convincing parents to send their children to school, since they are seen as a source of income. Here, an 8-year old boy is seen shoveling coal.

Many scavengers bathe in public after a day's work at the mines.

While many laborers send money home to their families, many others spend money on alcohol, drugs, and prostitution. Here two drunk laborers are seen near a coal depot.

Alcoholism is a problem among the scavengers who often use it to cope with long hours and poor work conditions. One wine shop owner said he sells about 15,000 bottles a day.

Many miners also gamble away their wages.

Entire communities have built up in and around these villages and they depend on scavenging for a livelihood.

Workers warm themselves by a pile of burning coal.

Trucks carry coal out of the villages, up unsafe slopes and deliver them to Assam in North East India or Bangladesh from where they are shipped to the rest of the country.

India's coal demand currently totals 700 million tonnes and is expected to reach 1 billion tonnes by 2017. The government needs to implement major reforms to curb illegal mining.

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