THEFT OR SURVIVAL?
At the opencast mines in Jharkhand’s Jharia coalfield, men, women and children walk down the mines as early as 3 am where they collect coal until noon, before burning it to produce soft coke and loading it into sacks.
They sell it to middlemen who pay about 100 rupees ($1.20) per sack.
Many of them belong to a second or third generation of coal scavengers, and resent being identified as coal “thieves”.
“What we do is akin to picking leftover food at a rich man’s feast. How is it theft?” asked coal scavenger Sanjay Kumar Pandit, 35, as he broke up large pieces of coal with a hammer.
Pinaki Roy, a teacher who runs classes for children living in the coalfield to help them find alternate careers, said it was inaccurate to define these impoverished families – who number about 100,000 people in the district – as thieves.
“These families are just earning their livelihood from coal. They have nothing else here,” he said.
A number of security officials Context spoke to, working at various subsidiaries of Coal India, agreed that the problem is rooted in unemployment, and said leniency is often applied to poor local people who pick coal just to make ends meet.
One official, who requested anonymity as he was not authorised to speak to media, said many dig their own “rat-holes” to extract coal and end up paying bribes to avoid arrest.
“But in cases where there is organised theft, we use technology to track and stop it,” he added.
Another senior official with Bharat Coking Coal Limited, a Coal India subsidiary in Dhanbad, insisted that illegal coal-picking could not be justified in any circumstances.
Ravi Kumar, 16, thinks he would have been taller than his 5 feet (152.4 cm) had he not spent his childhood lugging baskets of coal on his head, like others in his settlement of coal scavengers.
“We just stay short,” he said, standing near an opencast mine in Jharia as the sun set and a frail man appeared from behind the rocks, pushing his bicycle with 10 sacks of coal tied to it, while a girl walked behind him carrying a basket of coal.
Growing up in neighbouring Chhattisgarh, activist Sahu recalled his grandfather receiving a token from the mining company entitling him to one bullock cart-load of coal for their household needs.
In the past, poor coal pickers were often referred to as “coal people”, selling the fuel to middlemen, local eateries and coke-manufacturing plants for low prices.
But after the collieries became state-owned in the 1970s, their activity started to be branded as theft, mining rights campaigners said.
Describing coal as “government property”, one senior security official, requesting anonymity, said it was hard to explain “to illiterate people that they have no rights to it”.
According to teacher Roy, in the last five to 10 years, more than 100,000 people became coal-pickers in Jharia after losing their jobs when mines started outsourcing most of their work.
“Many people picking coal illegally were earlier employed with coal mines. This is a social problem. By calling them coal thieves, you are doing away with your responsibility to give them jobs. They are poor, not involved in any racket,” Roy said.