Life in India’s Coal Mines


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Life in India's coal mines are deplorable. Many workers and their families gather coal for a meager wage without any aid or protection from the occupational exposure to coal and silica dust, heavy metals, and ergonomic stress. The article in National Geographic describes the personal experience by a photographer on their journey throughout India.

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Life in India’s Coal Mines

  1. 1. Presented by: Bernard L. Fontaine, Jr., CIH, CSP The Windsor Consulting Group, Inc. Photographs by: Robert Kendrick, National Geographic LIFE IN INDIA’S COAL MILES
  2. 2. Coal is a paradox. It’s a cheap and plentiful energy source that created and continues to power our modern world, yet our continued reliance on coal threatens the very world it helped create. Coal powered the Industrial Revolution, and remains the leading energy source worldwide for generating electricity. And despite a recent decline in U.S. coal use, globally we burn more coal than ever. But coal is dirty. Pollutants are released when we burn it, one of them carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas scientists see as a driver of rising global temperatures. Photographer Robb Kendrick collaborated on this project with during his 1985 summer internship here, persevered in the face of many refusals, locked doors, and barred gates to get this article’s powerful photography showing coal’s visible impacts.” –Dennis Dimick, photo editor for “Can Coal Ever Be Clean?” in the April issue of National Geographic.
  3. 3. Meghalaya, India. Men unload a cart from a “rat hole” mine.
  4. 4. Being lowered 400 feet into an illegal mine is unsettling. You quickly realize how fragile your existence is. Everything around you is a wisp away from failure—rickety ladders descending into wet darkness, no escape route, no water pumps, no lighting, no ventilation systems, miners in flip flops and shorts lighting a cigarette in the dark while taking a break. One falling domino can bring the whole place down and with it, all those working inside. This is the reality of illegal mining in eastern India and for these miners, this is the norm. Taking these risks every day, miners work 3-foot tall coal seams, called “rat holes.” While lying on their backs picking away at the coal, they dig 1000 feet horizontally in unsupported seams with nothing more than a headlight. Collapse of these rat hole mines is not uncommon and many quietly die in the process.
  5. 5. Meghalaya, India. A coal miner climbs a shaky ladder to daylight.
  6. 6. Coal is lifted out of the mine shaft two tons at a time and trucked to a depot, where it is sorted by size and quality.
  7. 7. Endurance. That one word best describes the people in India. Whether an illegal miner working a rat hole 400 feet down, a child laborer loading 50-pound coal baskets into trucks, coal sorters in a coal depot, or women in the villages within a coal mine acting as the glue that keeps family and community together, they all showed tremendous endurance, graciousness, and kindness. No one was bitter, no one complained, no one asked anything of me. Life is cut to such a basic level that properly cremating their dead was a burden, though this ceremony is a vital part of proceeding to the afterlife. One group of miners, living in a coal mine that has experienced underground fires for nearly a century, simply wrap the deceased in cloth and stuff the body down one of the many crevasses where the body will burn.
  8. 8. Jharkhand, India. Separating and breaking coal in a depot gets you $2 USD per day. This man along with his wife, daughter, son-in-law, and one of his two grandsons all work in the depot. The five of them make $10 USD per 11-hour day.
  9. 9. Drive and determination. An older couple was working a coal depot in Jharkhand. The man, in his 60’s, was breaking coal with a small hammer while his wife shoveled broken coal. After 30 minutes of view their work and showing the results, their was a powerful realization about the work and their lifestyle and, more importantly to learn that the young boy sitting next to him was his grandson. His daughter, son-in-law and two grandsons were all living and working in the coal depot. This was a powerful moment, not because the image was powerful, but because of the pain that could felt for this man who was doing what he could to support his family and having it come to this thin existence—three generations living in plastic covered structures with dirt floors, no toilet, no water, and hammering and shoveling coal into piles.
  10. 10. At a mine in the village of Bokapahari, working in teams, men and women load baskets of coal by hand onto trucks that are waiting to carry it to coal depots for their clients throughout India.
  11. 11. Circumstance, something beyond our control, plays a huge role in all our lives. For these miners and their families, these jobs pay enough to risk their lives. As Americans, even the poorest of us, are born into a circumstance of such comparative excess and comfort, but so few of us could endure these same working and living conditions. It’s not that we are less durable, maybe just mentally more fragile. It is ironic that many of those risking their health and lives to provide coal in India do not have electricity. In fact they have very little that would qualify as a basic necessity. These remote mines insure that most Indians never see the unsafe, deplorable conditions these people live and work in. They do not see the lives that are considered necessary and in the same breath disposable.
  12. 12. Miners and their families work under deplorable conditions – exposed to air and surface contaminants from coal and crystalline silica dust, heavy metals, heat stress, and physical exertion
  13. 13. Jharkhand, India. Families living near the Jharia mine mainly work for the coal company. Existence in these villages is rough, and no area suitable for a garden.
  14. 14. Jharkhand, India. A young boy carries a chunk of coal into the mining camp where he lives.
  15. 15. Jharkhand, India. A coal miner tends a fire in the mining camp where he lives with his family.
  16. 16. Human suffering happens in many places. This situation is not unique, but entire communities being pushed down so far to provide something that comforts some just seems grotesque. It would be like a farmer growing food for others while seeing his own family face hunger. The hope is that images such as these may inform and start a conversation that will lead to small changes, and eventually larger ones, for the betterment of those who experience these hardships. Occupational health risks associated with exposures to coal mine dust over a working lifetime may lead to occupational respiratory diseases, including simple coal workers' pneumoconiosis (CWP), progressive massive fibrosis (PMF), and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Epidemiological studies have clearly demonstrated that miners have an elevated risk of developing deficits in lung function when they are exposed to respirable crystalline silica are also at risk of developing silicosis or mixed-dust pneumoconiosis.