Documentary photographer Souvid Datta explored the open mines of Jharia, in northeast India, for two years. The mines are the source of high-quality coal for India's growing industrial sector, but the conditions of the workers are often ignored. BuzzFeed News talked with Datta about his work as a part of our climate change photo essay series in collaboration with PHmuseum.
Here's the transcript of the interview, which has been edited for clarity.
Who receives the coal that is mined in Jharia?
Souvid Datta: BCCL (Bharat Coking Coal Limited) is one of India's largest and most important producers of high-quality "prime coking coal," or steel-making coal. Its 81 mines across Jharia and Raniganj coalfields in the Jharkhand coal belt provide almost 50% of the coking coal required for India's entire integrated steel sector. The company itself is a subsidiary of Coal India Limited, the world's largest producer of coal, which contributes around 82% of India's coal production.
Crucially, almost all coal production in India was nationalized by 1973 and remains so today: Both BCCL and CIL are state-owned coal producers. It is difficult to verify who the exact recipients of the coal produced by BCCL are — in terms of national corporations, initiatives, and foreign exports.
There are a lot of children in your images. What is the average age of the miners?
SD: Officially, BCCL does not hire minors, and also denies that illegal mining operations take place within its mines. But ever since the nationalization of coal in the '70s, one of the largest resulting industries has been the Coal Mafia — a local, colloquial term for the illicit organizations that profit from illegal mining and scavenging operations. The industry is notorious for being corrupt, and the past decades have seen exploitation, illegal labour practices, corporate negligence, and gang violence (1, 2) in Jharia. The minors you see pictured are people illegally scavenging and operating within these circles.
What is life like for the local miners who work there?
SD: Most of the local residents pictured who live around BCCL's mines have had their farming prospects ruined by a) the company's expansion, and b) the land being increasingly damaged by underground fires. An underground coal fire has been burning here since the early 20th century. Demand for coal-rich land became too high for Jharia's poor to afford retaining ownership of their land, or to continue running profitable businesses in the face of such a large new industry/employer. BCCL has also been accused by local environmentalists of deliberately provoking the underground fires as a pretext to evict local residents and take over their land for mining expansion.
BCCL is obligated to hire a certain quota of workers locally, but many are left unemployed or gain only shifts in the official mines. The rest of their income often is supplemented by new opportunities that come from illegal mining operations run by the Coal Mafia. This pays less and offers no security, but there is always demand for work.
This is a very old minefield — is it expected to continue for much longer, all conditions staying the same?
SD: More or less. The resettlement and expansion developments mentioned above are certainly underway. And Jharia and BCCL are the at the forefront of Prime Minster Narendra Modi's plans to double national coal production by 2020, and extend electricity to the country's rural poor.
Some of your photos show locals receiving medical treatment. What kind of risks are the miners exposed to?
SD: Many of the workers suffer from pneumoconiosis — a common respiratory affliction for miners where coal particles become lodged inside the lungs. Tuberculosis and severe asthma are also an issue. These health concerns are exacerbated by the fact that working conditions in the mines are poor and there is little corporate responsibility for workers' health and safety priorities.
Can you talk about the new construction projects that are taking place in the mining area?
SD: One of the main incentives given to locals living around BCCL's mines in Jharia to move has been an offer of new housing and temporary employment in an artificial settlement, Belgharia, some 12 kilometers away. Residents who have moved have found the living conditions far less than promised, and commitments of employment largely nonexistent. Belgharia is one of India's largest state resettlement initiatives, with plans for over 300,000 families from Jharia's "fire areas" to be relocated there. Up till now though, stunted by lacking infrastructure and managerial issues, only around 1,500 families have been resettled into over 3,000 quarters built by the Jharia Rehabilitation and Development Authority (JRDA), with construction for over 20,000 more quarters currently underway. Most residents here resent having been tricked or forced into moving, having lost their traditional homes and access to local coal-related employment (legal or otherwise), and now fear for their futures.
What was the most striking takeaway from the mines?
SD: The mines first strike you as some Tolkien-esque dystopia, where fire and sickening smoke churn out from the land all day and all night. Indeed, the scenery and lifestyles are dramatic and surreal. But what's most alarming is how it's exactly places like this, hidden off India's beaten path, that reveal the cost and daily reality of the nation's development agenda. For all of India's economic success, what with talk of Mumbai's shining skyscrapers or Delhi's increasingly rich middle classes, the brunt of these achievements bear down on those most acutely vulnerable to it: the poor and shunned castes of places like Jharia. That this is one of the truest faces of India's development is what struck me the hardest.