At the tri-junction at Govindpur, Mahendra Mahto paused to look both sides before continuing pushing his cycle. Mahto, in his 20s, wearing a shirt and trousers and open-toed sandals, had six sacks weighing 40 kgs each of coal tied to both sides of the cycle. He began walking, pushing the 250-kg load five hours earlier at 6 am. At Govindpur, he joined six cyclewallahs who were waiting for everyone in their group to catch up. They sold the sacks to dhaba-owners, tea-shops at Rs 50 a sack at the market, before cycling home to Godhar.
Mahto had hesitated before speaking about his journey from Godhar coal mine, 17 km away, till here. After the central government nationalised coal in 1971, digging coal by hand and using it in small quantities as household fuel, or selling it in the open market is illegal. Thousands of landless families, a majority of whom are dalit and OBC, pushing cycles loaded with coal every day in Jharkhand’s coal-rich areas are a criminalised community, and live and work in perpetual fear of being jailed for their livelihood.
Coal traders, however, have prospered. In Dhanbad’s Jharia, which will go to polls in the fourth phase of elections in the state on December 14, the two main candidates, representing BJP and Congress belong to the “Singh Mansion”, said to be the richest family in the coal business in Jharkhand. The BJP candidate Sanjeev Singh, the son of the sitting MLA Kunti Singh and former MLA Surya Dev Singh is set for a face-off with his paternal cousin, Neeraj Singh, the Deputy Mayor of Dhanbad.
The Singhs are accused of controlling the loading of coal in trucks and at railway slidings, and of demanding a tax on every tonne loaded, in collusion with Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL) officials. They are accused of running syndicates which bid at electronic auctions and keep prices low. Every year, upto 20 million tonnes of coal is estimated to be diverted.
Sanjeev Singh, BJP candidate in Jharia, at Hurriladih mine where 19 workers died when the mine flooded on 14 September 1983. photo by Manob Chowdhury
“Not a single trader can say we have stopped them from doing business. In fact, we help whoever wishes to do business in coal here,” said BJP candidate Sanjeev Singh, as he sat in his SUV after addressing a rally at Bhaura grounds, Jharia. Sanjeev Singh was one of the accused in the murder of Suresh Singh, a rival in the coal business who was gunned down at a wedding in 2011. “The police was not able to prove that I was even present in Dhanbad that day,” pointed out Mr Singh, as his villagers and mine workers walking on the road offered salutations everywhere Mr Singh went. Both candidates claim ownership of Janta Mazdoor Sangh (JMS), a trade union set up by Sanjeev’s father, former MLA Surya Dev Singh, through which the family is said to influence coal loading and transportation.
Congress candidate Neeraj Singh said that after training in engineering, he worked in Kolkata and Ranchi before returning to Dhanbad. He began public work in Jharia by taking up the cause of contract workers of BCCL to get wages and hours of work in parity with BCCL’s permanent workers. “When BCCL tried to move families living on top of Jharia coal-fields, I backed their agitation for rehabilitation and courted arrest,” said Mr Singh, as he finished addressing his supporters late in the evening at Lodna.
A few kilometers away, in bastis in Bhandora, Jayrampurmod, Jagdorha, in the midst of Jharia’s mines, the landless cyclewallahs, too poor to find temporary jobs in the mines, had begun returning home after another day of evading arrests and harassment.
Villagers and mine workers at Congress candidate Neeraj Singh’s election rally in Lodna near Jharia. photo by Manob Chowdhury
NIRSA: At late noon, there is hectic activity in the open-cast coal mine at Dahibadi. Workers can be seen loading trucks before they slowly make their way up the massive open quarry. A hundred meters away, at the Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL)’s Basantimata colliery all is quiet except ocassional sounds of a water
pump from underneath the ground.
Gopal Singh, the attendance clerk in shift ‘A’ says 104 mine workers are 1500 meters underground. There are six hours more to go before the shift ends. Both Singh and Birendra Ram, the Haulage Operator, working nearby seem to turn philosophical when they speak of work. “This is a place of pure darkness,” says Ram. “Workers find a new life every time they emerge from the mine. It is a relief for all of us once the full shift comes out,” says Singh, in his late 50s. Every BCCL employee seems to recount the histories of mine accidents from decades ago. “Nineteen workers at Hurriladih took jal samadhi, the mine had got flooded, on 14 September 1983. It was the same at Gajritand. In Chasnala, the entire shift, 370 workers, died underground.”
At Basantimata colliery, a few meters from Singh’s small cabin, there was an accident just last year. On November 13, 2013, three workers Harilal Hairjan, Litti Sau, Sitaram Manjhi, died when a portion of the mine’s roof collapsed. The sitting MLA Arup Chatterjee of Marxist Coordination Committee (MCC) spent six hourse inside the mine coordinating the rescue efforts after the body of a BCCL manager had remained trapped a day after the three workers’ bodies had been removed.
Nirsa goes to polls on December 14 in the fourth phase of elections in Jharkhand. The MCC’s Bihar Colliery Kamgar Union (BKCU) and the rival Janta Mazdoor Sangh (JMS) both compete for cadre membership and workers’ votes. Both MCC and BKCU were founded in early 1970s by AK Roy, a founder of the Jharkhand Movement. Nirsa is the one of two assembly seats in Jharkhand the Left has been able to hold on to for the last two decades. JMS was set up by former MLA Surya Dev Singh, whose son Sanjeev Singh is contesting from nearby Jharia on a BJP seat. BJP candidate in Nirsa is Ganesh Mishra, a RSS functionary.
The rivalries between the two parties erupted in clashes between MCC and BJP on December 11 in which MCC wrker Machan Ravidas was killed in hours before the MCC was to hold a rally at Pithakyari, a few kilmeters from Basantimata. “For us, this is a fight against growing corporate clout here and for the rights of people of Jharkhand as Comrade AK Roy envisioned,” said Sushanto Mukherjee Central Committee member of MCC.