How is Coal India for doctors

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Make coal at any price

Open pit mine in the Indian state of Jharkhand

The rapidly growing Indian economy has a great demand for energy. That is why coal is being mined more and more in Jhakharta. The Adivasi living there pay the price for the ambitious development plans. Their way of life is not respected, at best they are in demand as cheap labor. Equally little attention is paid to environmental protection.

by Michael Briefs and Christoph Burgmer

Gusts of wind swirl up gray-black sand. The wooded mountains are hidden behind thick clouds of dust. It is cool on January 26th, Republic Day in India. The journey goes through the middle of the east Indian state of Jharkhand. We pass countless deserted towns with their mud huts ornately decorated in earth colors. The residents fled to the cities before the coal mine. Many villages have simply ceased to exist as Indian cities grow immeasurably.

Ramgarh is such a refugee city. It is on the road from Jharkhand's capital, Ranchi, to Hazaribagh in the north. It has become the regional center for the coal mines in the area. The city overflows with people. They arrive every day. Many from the north, the state of Bihar, one of the poorest in India. Already during the day the unemployed, gamblers and fortune seekers populate the wrecked pubs and brothels of the city, where young women of the Adivasi ethnic group offer themselves for little money. The hard work far from home with no prospects has driven many workers into alcohol and drug addiction. An unsafe city. We cross Ramgarh quickly.

Mandu, another coal town on the way to our destination, the Parej coal mine, is also characterized by hectic activity. Everywhere men with shovels strode purposefully along the only major road. But women are hardly to be seen here. In front of a ruin, on which a sign in English indicates that the state mine information center is supposed to be here, private, coal-trading small business owners are waiting in front of their trucks for wealthy customers. Anyone who lives here knows how things go with the money. Anyone who comes from outside and is looking for information depends on the help of locals.

Justin Imam acts as a tour guide for us here. The Adivasi of the Oraon tribe was born in this area. He is politically active and campaigns for the rights of the Adivasi. A quarter of the 27 million people in Jharkhand is Adivasi. This people had long adhered to their ancient religions and languages, unaffected by the dominant Hindu culture in India. But the traditions are becoming less important. The rapid capitalization of industry produces impoverishment.

Our companion works for the non-governmental organization BIRSA, the Bindrai Institute for Research Study and Action. This is an amalgamation of various Adivasi groups founded in 1994. »BIRSA is an independent NGO and educates the natives about the consequences of industrialization. We are closely connected to the history of Jharkhand and the struggle of the Adivasi for their land and their cultural identity. It's not about the coal, it's about our country. «Justin Imam is 29 years old, a slender man with a firm voice. He knows that there is no independence in globalized capitalism. But he does not want to accept that the traditional way of life of the Adivasi is sacrificed for profit interests - as has already happened with other peoples in the south. The Adivasi, like other minorities in the world, settle in regions that are rich in natural resources.

We are lucky that Justin Imam accompanies us on the drive through the coal mining area. Because you don't like to see strangers here. The situation is tense. In the past there had been road blockades and demonstrations, demonstrators were shot and Adivasi leaders arrested. Militant Maoist resistance groups regularly carry out attacks on coal transports. After the experiences of the last few years, political resistance has increased. Justin Iman is well informed: “In the ten years of my work I have established good contacts with almost all the villages of the various Adivasi tribes in my Hazaribagh region. In 2003, BIRSA set up their own information office for mining issues in Ranchi. "

We cross the coal towns of Kuju and Charhi. The same picture everywhere: people dig for coal with shovels. No matter where, in the middle of town, on the side of the road and even in the nearby rubble mountains. "Coal to coke," Justin Imam explains. "You have to get fuel for a house fire." There are hundreds, even thousands, of people who use this to obtain fuel for a fire and thus for a hot meal. “After nightfall, when it gets cold and you can't see the smoke, they pile up large piles and start the smoldering fire. The next morning the coal turned into coke. «This produces extremely toxic carbon monoxide; but that doesn't seem to worry anyone.

Finally we reach the Parej coal mine. The region is like a battlefield. Chopped off tree stumps and tattered branches remind us that there was once a jungle here. The gigantic coal excavators only recently cleared the forest. You will create the space you need to continue open-cast coal mining.

At the old edge of the mine behind it lies the settlement area of ​​the agaria tribe. With the recent expansion of the opencast mine, their villages are now completely surrounded by mines. In the south, the company TISCO, which belongs to the Tata Group, an Indian global player, is digging for the fuel. With 220,000 employees, this largest private Indian company operates not only raw material mines but also insurance companies and is also India's largest car manufacturer. Tata means as much to India as Siemens and DaimlerChrysler to Germany.

In the west the Agaria villages border the mines of Central Coalfields Limited (CCL), which also operates the Parej coal mine. The Group regularly publishes the operating results of its mining activities on the Internet. One proudly publishes growth rates; for example, the production of washed coal for households in March and April 2005 was 12 percent higher than in the corresponding period of the previous year.

There is no mention of Adivasi. Not even from agarias, which look like toy settlements next to the huge mines. The published balance sheets are intended to attract well-funded national and international investors. Mining activities in the inaccessible hill country of Jharkhand require high investments, especially in logistics and machinery. It is true that the latest annual report from CCL states: »The company is taking various measures to improve the maintenance of a cleaner environment by

Introduces pollution control measures and large-scale reforestation. «But little of that can be seen: after the coal has been extracted, a lunar landscape remains. The Parej Coal Mine is a ditch the size of several football fields and has cut so deep into the ground that we feel dizzy. "The conditions for people are more like those of the 19th century," Justin Imam helps us to categorize. Workers are visible in the depths. A pair of rubber boots, a thin outfit and a protective plastic mask - that's all the workers get from management to protect them.

On the opposite side, on the edge of the mine crater, we approach the agaria houses. The residents' resistance to the Parej mine has been broken. A few crooked fence posts are a reminder of the company's now unnecessary attempt to cordon off the mine from the village. What remained are some bare concrete piles. They protrude lost from the bush landscape. Right next to the houses, the coal trucks have driven out a stony dirt road over a slightly elevated plateau to a road. You can now get to the shovel excavators and the endless coal conveyor belt without any obstacles.

Mothers cradle their babies in their laps and look absent-mindedly after the incessantly passing trucks. Other women try to clean the floors of their houses with a broom from the fine coal dust that is constantly being blown from the mine into the houses. Malnourished little children play in the shade of meager tree remains. When they see our white off-road vehicle, they line up and look at us from raven-black faces, frightened. An elderly woman rushes over, chatting eagerly, and tries to explain to us why the children are not going to school. It sounds resigned and almost like an apology: »There is neither a school nor any other training here. Our children have to work as henchmen in the coal depot. Before the mine came, we collected fruits and roots in the forest. But now the forest is gone. The mines ate him. We have to collect firewood all day long because we are not allowed to touch the coal. If we still collect coal, the police will come and take it away from us. "

There is a pile of stacked bricks in front of a simple stone building. Next to it are some tin containers with which the women carry drinking water from wells that are miles away. Clean water is even more difficult to find than edible in this mine desert, because the coal mine has lowered the water table. The wells that used to exist in the village have dried up. We take a look inside the vats. The coal dust that was blown up has mixed with the water to form a dark broth. The life expectancy of the people in the Jharkhand coal mining regions is among the lowest in all of India.

A few women lead us to a man who is sitting on a wooden chair behind a mud house that is painted with simple animal drawings. The man's eyes are glassy, ​​his cheeks sunken. White stubble frame the deep brown face, which has aged early. Paykara Sundi is 47 years old. He worked in the coal mines for many years. Now he's sick. “The doctor says I have tuberculosis. Like the others, I used to earn my living in the coal mines as a day laborer. Today I have to rely on handouts. ”Due to the nature of the terrain, which is dependent on the weather, companies cannot always use machines everywhere. On some days, day laborers dig for coal without the help of the machines. For one euro a day. There is no social security. “The filters on our breathing masks are often clogged with coal dust. That is why we can only fulfill our should if we remove the masks from our faces. Later we carry the coal we dug out of the mine in sacks on our backs. Sometimes we also use wheelbarrows. The ascent is dangerous and leads up roughly hewn steps up the pit slope. Many workers have accidents. "

The Parej coal mine covers more than a square kilometer. It is just one of many hundreds of coal mines in Jharkhand. The Indian central government has been campaigning intensively for investments by transnational companies since the 1990s. Australian and Canadian companies like White Industries and Met-Chem have now started coal mining. The returns are high and the investments are insured with World Bank aid so the risk of failure is low. And there are no effective government controls over compliance with international guidelines on job security, social security and waste disposal.

In the private mines, the use of the latest opencast mining excavators and coal transporters is worthwhile. They are serviced by non-Jharkhand technicians. Adivasi, many of whom cannot read or write, are not trained to do this. At most, this work is done in the mines for oiling and lubricating the machines or as a day laborer. Most of the inhabitants of the villages in the way of the opencast mine are forcibly relocated to other areas - for comparatively little compensation.

The social worker Bina Stanis, who has been documenting the events at the Parej Mine for seven years, told Ranchi about the consequences of such a forced relocation: “I would like to tell you about a case from 1999. At that time, 19 families were forcibly relocated to Pindra, the model settlement financed by the World Bank. Among them were Balgovind and his wife Parvati with their four children, one of whom was mentally disabled. Parvati was pregnant. In the new environment, she quickly fell ill. When the new village was built, an infirmary was also built, but to this day a nurse or doctor has never worked there. Parvati and her husband were soon firmly convinced that their gods rejected the new place. They did not seek another doctor, but rather blamed devil spirits for Parvati's illness. When she finally went to the doctor, it was too late. The child had died in the mother's womb, poisoned the mother. A short time later, Parvati also died in the hospital. That would have been impossible in the past. The village community would have advised them. Today, many Adivasi are uprooted, without the familiar community, crammed into one settlement somewhere. The forced relocations traumatize the people. "

Between 1981 and 1985 alone, over 30,000 families were forced to move in Jharkhand. More recent figures are no longer published officially by the government. Since the number of mines has risen sharply as a result of the increased demand for coal, there may have been more forced relocations.

About one kilometer from the village we pass a reloading depot for coal. Justin Imam explains to us that the trucks cannot drive up to the conveyor belts from everywhere because of the difficult terrain. So-called dungelsWorking groups of 10 to 15 men, women and children load the trucks with coal on behalf of an intermediary. For the 15 to 20 tons of coal with which they load the truck, a dung receives 1000 to 1500 rupees, the equivalent of 20 to 30 euros. That is enough to last for a week. It is mostly families who receive such a small income. If you work out how much each individual family member earns, you get 38 cents a day.

We are only making slow progress on the main road towards Ranchi. Again and again we have to drive around cyclists who have four to five hundred pounds of coke on them. The bicycle transporters are part of a sophisticated distribution system. It is one of the most strenuous jobs in the coal fields and is done by people who have not found work in the mines, have been relocated or whose fields have been destroyed by the mining companies. Under extreme physical strain, they remove the coal that whole families and village communities illegally mine in the forest during the day and coke at night. The next morning the unemployed come by bike to pick up the coke, which is then laboriously transported to the next town or to a middleman in a coal depot. In this way, the coke is sometimes transported 50 kilometers and even further.

The nationwide coal mafia is also involved in the lucrative business of illegal coal. Most of the time, however, it steals the coal directly from the mines and washing facilities. The coal is thrown into the river by bribed employees and washed up further downstream. Women and children collect them and take them to the well-known reloading depots for crushed and washed coal. These coal depots are located directly on the main road. When we unexpectedly turn up in one of these depots, we are looked at with suspicion. Men and women with shovels in their hands stand on boards that lead up to the loading areas of the trucks and load the coal. Some are soaked in sweat. Black dust fills the air everywhere. People whisper and turn away when they see us. The system of supervision seems to be very differentiated and sophisticated so that as many people as possible can control everyone. A few minutes later, one of the guards came up to us. He's been watching our rummaging for a long time. Finally, at his command, some of the men storm up. With unmistakable threatening gestures, they indicate that we should disappear.

The Adivasi human rights organization repeatedly reports on such illegal employment relationships Jharkhandis' Organization for Human Rights (JOHAR). It has been documenting increasing human rights violations for years. However, anyone who talks about it risks life and limb. The employees who explained the background to us therefore did not want to be named. Because not only the mafia, but also the transnational companies try in many ways to break the local resistance: “If the companies start to build a mine,” explains a JOHAR member, “they do not pass on any information, but rather try to state the opposite to get as much information as possible about the villages. This is done by a middleman, usually a local teacher or another person with appropriate education. The companies pay well for it.In addition, the middleman is supposed to persuade the villagers to sign documents stating that there are no objections to the construction of the mine. Since he is familiar with the local conditions, there are always some who sign. If people defend themselves later, the companies present these documents to the court or state employees and say 'Look here, the people signed it themselves'. "

In addition, the local administration provides the companies with information. You leave them all documents and papers that regulate property rights, for example. The flow of information only goes in one direction. When village communities resist expropriation and resettlement, they and their leaders are deliberately criminalized. "The manipulation is easy," continues our informant. “At the beginning, people stand together. So you have to split them up somehow. To do this, one first selects some of the less educated, unemployed young Adivasi who hang around in their villages. They are promised a job in the future mine, give them a lot of money for their means, give them a moped and provide them with good food and drink. In return, these three or four young people now have to publicly declare that they are ready to hand over, sell or lend the land to the mining company. That divides the solidarity community. This usually consists of around 25 villages, which are administered by village chiefs, so-called majhis, themselves. These villages, in turn, are united and elect a Pargana, a district leader. If there is a conflict, the Majhis call on the Pargana and a court meeting, the Panja, is called. This is also the case in the case of young people. Usually this court fines the youths to a few thousand rupees for violating the rules of the community. With the warning that if they continued like this, there would be further consequences. They are threatened with exclusion from the village community. The young people pay the fine, but then complain to the company. This anticipated the situation and was just waiting for an opportunity. The young people are taken to the police so that they can report coercion. The local Adivasi authorities, the Majhis and the Pargana are brought before a local state court. "

Justin Imam says that such and similar strategies have led the Adivasi to begin to abandon Jharkhand. They join the endless stream of those who seek their fortune in the rapidly growing megacities of Calcutta, New Delhi or Bombay. Those who stay, however, are resisting nonviolently or are simply hoping for their luck of finding jobs in the mines. "People are moved by the concrete hope of working in the mine," says Justin Imam. “But that's exactly what Coal India exploited. In the negotiations about the country, one wants to bait people with jobs, according to the motto 'country for jobs'. The companies also propagate this. The fact that many believe them shows that people are not fundamentally against the mines. Many have seen elsewhere that those who found work there could, for example, buy a motorcycle. And such a lifestyle is fascinating. They hope to be able to afford it one day and don't even notice that there are very few who get work. In addition, many welcome the mining projects because they can dig for coal themselves and sell it in the vicinity, although it is forbidden. A first contact with the money economy that has long since changed her life. I also believe that there is no turning back. But the mines are on our land. So we should also benefit from it. "

Shortly before dark we drive back to the Parej Mine. The area now appears to be guarded. Women and children crouch on the edge of the shaft. Some figures are working in the pit below, with hammers in their waistbands and black-smeared faces. Chunks of black rock roll on a treadmill, past men sipping tea from small plastic cups. In the area you can see a few small charcoal fires. Smelly and caustic smoke stings our eyes.

from: the overview 02/2005, page 59


Michael Briefs and Christoph Burgmer

Michael Briefs is a freelance journalist and Islamic scholar.
Christoph Burgmer is a freelance journalist and author.