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A window into coal workers in India: The history of Raniganj Coalfield


From Sanhati: A history of the 240 year-old Raniganj Coalfield– the story of its workers –the many lives that have been spent in its shadows, displaced by coal and depending on it for survival –would be a tale every bit as expansive as the Mahabharata. This two-part article gives a short glimpse of this history.

Sudipta Pal, Sanhati

A history of the 240 year-old Raniganj Coalfield – the story of its workers – the many lives that have been spent in its shadows, displaced by coal and depending on it for survival – would be a tale every bit as expansive as the Mahabharata. This article gives a short glimpse of this history.

In Part 1, we focus on the time from the British up to the liberalization of the 1990s. In Part 2, we will focus on developments after 1990 up to the present time.

Times under the British: Bauris and Santhals, the First Coal Workers of India

Commercial coal production began in Raniganj Coalfield in 1774, after the British came to India. This region was previously filled with dense forests, according to the Burdwan Register. Wildlife flourished here.

The original inhabitants were Bauris belonging to the Nishad community, as well as Adivasi communities like the Santhals, Kols, and Bhils. Some of these inhabitants cleared the jungle to make settlements and engaged in agriculture; others depended on the jungle for their livelihood.

Tunnels were created underground to start the extraction of coal. The steam engine had not been invented yet. Shovels, hammers, scythes – these were the original tools used in the mine. Pulleys were used to raise and lower humans and the coal.

The first workers were taken from the villages nearby. The Bauris who lived in this region from ancient times were the first coalworkers of India. They were hard workers and skilled at mining. Soon, the hardworking Santhals of the region joined the Bauris in the mines.

Women and children participated in the work. In the words of Ranajit Dasgupta,

“The adult males would dig the coal inside the mine. The women and children would put them in baskets and bring them up the tunnels”.

Gradually, the number of mines started increasing and a shortage of mine workers occurred. Conditions in the darkness of the mines were very dangerous. There were practically no safety measures during those times. Accidents would take many lives. The locals were not too eager to work in the mines.

The Bauris were a farming people and the Santhals had an ancient bond to the land. They did not want to sever these bonds. The Monsoons were a busy season for them, and they would not come to the Coalfield. This also happened during crop season.

The need therefore arose of bringing in outside workers. Today, the situation has changed a lot. Workers were brought in from outside the state – from Bihar, UP, MP, Odisha, and Nepal. In 1840, after mining started in other states, there was a shortage of workers in the Raniganj region.

The shortage was exacerbated by the brutal oppression meted out to the miners, tales of which spread far and wide. Only the utterly destitute, the people displaced from land and village, would come to work here. These conditions made it impossible to meet the demand for labour in Raniganj.

Brutal Conditions in Workers Depots

The owners then employed agents to bring in workers from faraway lands. These agents were called “Sardars“. They would coerce people to come and work here, through a combination of enticement, fear, and duplicity. Human accounts can be found in the writings of Ramkumar Vidyananda, Prafulla Kumar Sinha, and Shilaja Nanda.

The year 1890. Railways had been established. Workers were brought in like beasts in trains, into workers’ depots. The level of inhumanity was medieval.

There is one such place near Asansol Station, to this day called “Depot Para”. From this depot, workers were supplied to the tea gardens in Assam and the coal fields of Raniganj. The Gorakhpuri workers camp was notorious even by these standards. Guards would stand ready at the boundaries, to catch any escapee.

The workers coming in from outside – the Bhuiyas, Mundas, Beldar, Dushad, Chamars, Gowalas – gradually began to build squatters camps outside the Coalfield. Their makeshift huts could be built using equipment from the Coalfield itself. Thus started the workers slums, the “mohallas“.

Working Conditions before Nationalization

The working conditions of the workers during these early phases were terrible. There was no concept of fixed working hours. They would be worked for 16-18 hours a day. The overseer, called the “Munshi“, would make sure that not a single moment was wasted starting from the instant workers entered the mine. If workers stopped for even a moment as they pushed their carts, they would receive a kick, bringing them down.

The pay was meager. In 1880, the wages amounted to 2 “annas“.

In 1920-1923, workers organizations called for demonstrations and strikes. The British government then took the decision of increasing their wages. Even then, workers would receive lower wages and bonuses then was their due – much lower than what was agreed upon on paper.

If accidents took the lives of a few workers, the rest would be buried alive and killed, to suppress the evidence. In the present time, the same thing is happening in illegal mines.

The owners filled the workers slums with liquor stores. Alcoholism was used to keep the workers from organizing and resisting. They had no access to health or education.

In 1901, the First Mines Act brought child labour under control, and in the Act of 1952, the minimum age for child labour in mines was fixed at 18. In 1929, laws were formulated to make employment of women in mines illegal. The Act of 1952 fixed the 8-hour working day for the miners. Some safety measures were adopted.

The situation thus changed gradually after India became independent. Industrial development called for increased coal production. The mines required proper safety measures and modern, scientific extraction methods. Workers became more and more restive. Private owners were of course not willing to implement safety measures, which could be costly.

Demands for nationalization of the coal industry were raised from around the country. Private owners were reluctant to manage and run the mines in this changed situation.

And finally in 1973, the Indian coal industry was nationalized.

After Nationalization

After nationalization, Raniganj Coalfield became Eastern Coalfield Limited (ECL). Along with seven other subsidiaries, Coal India Limited was formed.

After nationalization, the wages of men and women were equalized. In 1974, the first National Coal Wage Agreement was instituted, resulting in a sudden and large increase in the wages of coal workers. Safety measures are much better in the mines than before. Accidents have come down. Hospitals have been built for coal workers and their living quarters have improved. Permanency has given them a measure of security in their jobs.

However, it is not as if the quality of the workers’ lives has improved drastically. Although the number of schools in the mining region has increased, the quality of education remains deplorable. Alcoholism rages in the area, as does the scourge of moneylenders. Organized trade unions have mainly concentrated on economic demands, neglecting the task of raising the political consciousness of the workers.

The rising wages in the Collieries brought a fresh set of demands – people who had previously lived an independent existence, relying on agriculture, demanded to enter the industry. The shortage of workers meant that some of the local people were were many given employment, along with the descendents of the old workers who had come from outside.

After nationalization, many temporary workers were brought in. Alongside with this trend of temporary hiring, plans to fire workers were hatched continuously. Illiterate workers, under the influence of addiction, were sunk in debt and forced to sell their jobs.

Many workers suffered from ailments from the continuous underground work. Under demand from the unions, they were declared unfit and replaced by somebody responsible. Long exposure to coal dust leads to the lung disease pneumoconiosis; there was no compensation for this deadly medical condition.

According to some surveys, between 1986 and 1993 around 7% of workers at the ECL suffered from pneumoconiosis. That translates to around twelve thousand workers. [For a summary of the national status of the incidence of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, we refer to a study by the National Institute of Miners’ Health. Surveys conducted in the 1960s and 1970s found prevelence levels of 6.3% to 16.8% in some cases (Vishwanathan et. al., 1972) – ed.]

This issue has been thrust to the backburner and neglected.

Currently, payments are made through banks. Previously, moneylenders would be standing at the payment counter, ready to take their due and leave very little for the worker. Usurious interest rates, to the tune of 10% monthly or more, were common. The amount due would increase exponentially, to the point where a worker would come back home empty-handed for the month. At that point, the worker would not feel like returning to the job, and the moneylender would sell the job.

Influential people of the village or the “mohalla”, along with employees of the Coalfield, are involved in this racket. Even after the system of bank payments started, an arrangement with the bank manager would continue this business. The administration and trade union leaders would watch as this business of usury continued unabated. Female workers were made to cook and run errands in the quarters of officers.

After 1985, new workers have not been employed at ECL. Only unfit workers have been replaced, or displaced people absorbed.

The trade union movement has essentially come down to blocking transfers, stopping suspensions in case a worker is absent, promotions, and arranging jobs by making up false “unfit” cases – that too for money.

Before nationalization, the Coalfield manager, the “sardars” – these were the bosses. And after nationalization, the trade union leaders are the bosses. Instead of developing the consciousness of the workers, they have made them dependent. This is why, even after the coal industry was privatized, there was no movement.

This article appeared in the booklet “Adhikar Bhabnay Shramik”, published by APDR.

Next part: the history after privatization (soon to be published on Sanhati.com)

Sources:

1. Prantar published by Somnath Das; “Raniganj Khani Anchaler Itibritta” – edited by Chanchalya and Tarapada Hazra

2. Various issues of “Asansoler Shilpancholer Udyog”

3. A report on the temporary workers movement in Raniganj Coalfield, published by the organization “Adhikar”

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