The Precarious Lives of Indian Miners: A Reading List

Mining as an economic activity is precarious, not just in the obvious sense that it is dangerous. It is also precarious in a socio-economic sense. 

In December 2018, 15 coal miners were trapped in a rat-hole mine in Meghalaya, where they eventually perished when the mine filled with water from a nearby river. Rescue efforts led by the Indian Navy were not successful, and after a month now, there is no hope of extracting the bodies of these miners.

Incidents like these remind us why a certain class of workers in neo-liberal capitalist economies have been classified as “precariat” — a term derived from the words precarious, and proletariat. Though the term precariat can be used to describe anyone who performs uncertain wage labour, in this reading list we focus specifically on miners and mining communities. Populations that are dependent on mining either directly or indirectly, are exposed to a number of risks on a daily basis, over and above the risk of roof-collapses, flooding and fires. There are a number of ways in which the lives and livelihoods of the local people who live near mines are precarious. Here, we enumerate some of these ways.

1) Precarity in Social and Economic Position

A 2015 study by Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt and Mohammed Zakaria Siddiqui found that Other Backward Classes appear to be the single largest social group among mining and quarrying households. Most of these marginalised households are involved in quarrying marble and stone. The workers from these households suffer from occupational diseases and are unable to adequately spend on healthcare and education. From their study, the authors surmise that the casual employment that is offered by mines, that is often presented as “the harbinger of economic progress”, is actually aiding to perpetuate inequality and is far more exploitative of lower-caste households on which the industry depends heavily for labour.

We examined NSS data to identify households where mining is casual employment, and from the nature of that employment, we identified “marginal” as a subset. The results indicate that more than 42% of the estimated 1.4 million mining and quarrying households are marginal, or extremely vulnerable, without secure jobs. This figure is quite large, and needs to be taken into consideration when discussing informal sector employment and poverty.  

In June 2016, 20 children had reportedly died while working in mica mines in Jharkhand. A report by Nita Bhalla, Anuradha Nagaraj and Rina Chandran which was based on an exhaustive Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation found that the Indian mining industry frequently employed children under 18 despite legislation against it. According to the report, district officials are aware of children being employed in mines, but insist it is only restricted to mines which are extremely remote. A Dutch campaign group, SOMO, estimates that up to 20,000 children could be involved in mica mining in Jharkhand and Bihar.

The central government has no machinery to inspect or control the mines," the spokesman Y.S. Kataria told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. BBA workers, who have been trying to stop child labour in Jharkhand's mica mines for almost a decade, said Madan's death and the six others in the past two months were just the tip of the iceberg, estimating fewer than 10 percent of mica mine deaths are reported to the police. "Although there are no official figures on child deaths in the mines as it is all illegal, we hear about them through our networks in the villages where we work," said Raj Bhushan, BBA's Jharkhand Project Coordinator. "Normally, we hear about 10 fatalities on average in a month. But in June, we documented over 20 deaths, including two of boys aged around 15 years old." Officials from India's Directorate of Mines Safety were not available to comment on the number of child fatalities.

2) Precarity in Terms of Exposure to Hazardous Substances

With the urgency to meet nuclear policy goals by 2020, the government, under the aegis of the Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) has been trying to expand uranium mines in India. Bengt G Karlsson’s 2009 article discusses how the quest to develop India’s nuclear output to 20,000 megawatts by increasing the domestic supply of uranium might come at the cost of tribal populations and compromised health. With the help of a case study from the uranium-rich West Khasi Hills, he shows how the government has faced stringent opposition from the local population.

According to Hopingstone Lyngdoh, the history of uranium in Meghalaya goes back to the 1950s when the atomic energy mining division came for the first preliminary explorations. New explorations followed in the 1970s and 1980s, eventually leading to the discovery of uranium deposits in a number of different places. The village of Domiasiat in the West Khasi Hills was one of these sites, and it was close to the place where the Atomic Minerals Directorate finally started explorative mining and processing of the ore to produce the so-called yellowcake. Lyngdoh said that he had opposed these activities from the very beginning in his capacity as an elected member of the legislative assembly and the KHADC, the latter being a body put in place after the Indian independence to ensure tribal self-rule in the hill areas of north-east India. Lyngdoh spoke of how he had started to receive information from people in and around Domiasiat about fish that were dying in the nearby rivers and of dogs and cows that were going mad. Strange diseases had also begun to emerge. It was then that he started to mobilise people against the uranium mining on a larger scale.

The UCIL’s operations in Jaduguda, Jharkhand, was also met with fierce resistance from the local community and environmentalists. Moushumi Basu’s 2009 article narrated how UCIL had held a public meeting to discuss plans of expanding the uranium mine with major stakeholders. But the local tribal population was conspicuously absent from the meeting, which was held in a Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) camp where Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code was in force, which made the whole exercise entirely farcical.

... the “public” who have lost their lands to the mines and whose health has been damaged due to radiation could find no place in the tent and it was not easy for them to participate in the hearing. Armed men and women of the CISF and other forces were deployed about a kilometre ahead of the venue and many of the villagers were stopped and forced to go back. However, a group of about a hundred local villagers under the banner of the Jharkhandi Organisation Against Radiation (JOAR) managed to make their way to the venue. Following a scuffle with the UCIL employees who had occupied all the chairs,the JOAR members decided to boycott the public hearing and hold a dharna just outside the fence surrounding the venue. Environmentalists accompanying the villagers also decided to join them.

3) Precarity in Terms of Exposure to Dangerous Situations

In 2001, a mining accident that was similar to the one in Meghalaya, took place in Bagdigi, Jharkhand leading to the death of 29 people. Only one miner lived to tell the tale from a mine that was classified as “safe”. Situating the accident at Bagdigi as only one among many such frequent mining accidents, A K Roy insisted that these incidents can be prevented easily given the current safety regulations, though he says that underground mines were as unsafe in 2001 as they were in 1973.  

The answer lies in the lack of implementation. How for instance, can sections 108 and 109 help in supporting the roof if the steel props bought were used on paper and the undersized wooden props even if used for sometime in the mine were subsequently removed to make cots and furniture with the knowledge of everybody? A sharp fall in the work culture of the colliery officers and their distance from the workers also contributes greatly to the disasters. There is no interaction with workers and no important executive is available on the spot to take critical decisions or take the responsibility for taking wrong decisions. The blame for the accident is conveniently laid on the worker who dies in accident as enquiry reports of many accidents show.

4) Precarity in Terms of Sudden Loss of Livelihood

Mines produce a natural resource in a finite quantity. When the resource is exhausted, the mine should ideally be closed in a manner that is both economically and ecologically sustainable. According to Indian Bureau of Mines regulations, mining lessees are required to notify the government of a mine closure a year in advance. However, there have been several instances across India where mines have shut down suddenly, because of which, the dependent community has found itself faced with grave economic hardship. Taking the case of Hindustan Zinc Limited in Orissa, Sujit Kumar Mishra discusses the issue of mine closures in his 2018 article where he writes that the mining community should not suffer because of changes in the operations of mines.

The closure process of HZL Sargipali was very sudden. Workers were unprepared to take proper decisions about their livelihood, and whatever steps they took were not planned. As a result, those who started businesses incurred huge losses due to lack of prior experience. The institutional mechanism in terms of policy was purely project-specific in nature. It emerged from the field survey that the VRS they opted for under pressure from the labour union was perceived by a majority of the employees as an unfair deal. However, most of them accepted it from fear of getting absolutely nothing if they resisted. This study has presented the arbitrariness in the planning of the mine closure process at HZL Sargipali. It has been clearly brought out that in order to ensure sustainable livelihoods even after closure, effective planning with regard to mining closure activity is required. Alternate channels of employment should be arranged for at the time of closure. As highlighted earlier, institutional mechanisms such as socio economic impact assessment, proper dissemination of information, and effective consultation should be developed and implemented at the government and community levels to ameliorate the impact of mine closures on the community.

 

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