Digging Deep for Survival Dilip Unnikrishnan

At Baranj village near the non-functional Karnataka Emta Coal Mine Ltd (KECML) mine, a few men use a temple premises to indulge in their daily pastime of playing cards. Ashish Randive, a 26-year-old tall and hefty man who is one of them, had worked as machinery supervisor at the mine. He was among the hundred men from Baranj who were employed by KECML.

The Hanuman Temple At Baranj

The KECML was a joint venture between the Karnataka Power Corporation Ltd (KPCL) and Eastern Minerals and Trading Agency (EMTA). In 2002, the KPCL got mining rights in Baranj after the coal block allocation. However, it tied up with EMTA in 2008 and floated the KECML to operate the mines. The new company recruited the project affected farmers, locals as well as hired workers from EMTA’s Bengal mining unit.

The mine is devoid of any activity

However, after the Coalgate scam, the Supreme Court rescinded mining rights in all coal blocks across the country. This led to the break-up of the JV and closure of the Baranj mine. KPCL managed to acquire the mine back in April 2015, but is yet to resume operations.

The Coalgate scam brought operations to a grinding halt

Another man who spends his time playing cards in the temple, Bhupendra Nanaji Godade, had lost his land to mining operations, Godade, is short and wiry with a pleasant smile coupled with weary eyes and a receding hairline. “I used to have voluminous hair but I guess working in the mine has caused me to lose it,’’ says Bhupendra with a dry chuckle. Bhupendra’s family was among the many which lost its land to the mine in 2007. “My family had 4 acres of farmland where we used to grow cotton, soyabean, wheat and Bengal gram. We used to earn close to Rs 30,000 every season from harvesting those crops and that was a time where cotton fetched us Rs 2,500 per quintal as opposed to Rs 5,200 per quintal now,” says Bhupendra.

Bhupendra Nanaji Godade

The Godades were paid around Rs 14 lakh for their farmland by KECML. Bhupendra also got a job in the mine as per the deal signed by the company and the villagers. He worked as a handyman initially for an annual income of Rs 2,500 before being promoted to a driver. By the end of 2014, his salary had gone up to Rs 7,428 per month, close to the figure he used to get from his farm.”

“We got a one-time payment for selling the farm. Rs 14 lakh and that was it. However, if we still had the farm, my son, grandson and great-grandson could have all been able to live off the land,” said Godade. The farms of the people which weren't bought by KEMCL turned barren after being exposed to the coal dust ridden air.

Land at Baranj has turned barren
The Open Cast Mine
The Open Cast Mine
The Open Cast Mine

Sanjay Tukaram Devgadhe, a resident of Baranj, worked at the mine for a month as a daily wage labourer. “We were paid Rs 180 for a day’s work, but the payment was never regular. I got the wages for the last week of my employment a month after I left the job. We were only provided with boots. I never saw anyone wear a safety helmet in all the time I worked there. The conditions were pretty bad for us.”

Alcoholism

Villagers around the mining areas have to tackle rampant alcoholism.

A five-year struggle led by 1,543 self-help groups, mosque committees, 91 social organizations and 551 Gram Panchayats led to Chandrapur being declared a dry district in January 2015. Women across the district led marches demanding a blanket ban on alcohol consumption. Illicit alcohol brewing became rampant across Chandrapur. Mahua, a traditional natural intoxicant, was sourced from the nearby forests to be sold in Baranj and various mining villages.

Continued brewing of Mahua depleted its source, leading to people resorting to brewing liquor laced with deadly chemicals. Devgadhe said, “Miners often used to drink from a local bar before going into the mine and after their shift. Alcoholism became so rampant that some miners couldn’t function properly without being intoxicated.”

“The alcohol ban had a lot of adverse effects”, says Godade. “People began brewing alcohol at home using Mahua and chemicals. They used 1 liter of Mahua with jaggery and mixed it with chemicals like urea and alum to produce 7 liters of alcohol. It became so profitable that some people gave up their regular jobs to go into full time alcohol brewing.”

Battered and Bruised

Mining operations have left villages battered and reduced villagers to wage labourers.

Telwasa, 9 kilometers south of Bhadrawati, is a village lying on the periphery of a coal mine run by Western Coalfields Limited (WCL) that has been operational since 1987. Battered and cracked houses litter this tiny village,

In 1987, WCL bought land off the villagers at Rs 20,000 per acre instead of Rs 40,000. Namdoot Tatoba Kuchankar feels the villagers were cheated by the company regarding the sale of their farmland. ” Rs 20,000 was low even in 1987. We should’ve been paid Rs 40,000 per acre for the land which would’ve fetched us Rs 8 lakh per acre in today’s rates.”

Cracks have opened up in houses in Telwasa
Many of the houses in Telwasa are severely damaged

There was a loud blast in the mining area, but the villagers were unperturbed. Chuckling heartily, Kuchankar says, “It has become a part of our lives now. The blasts go on late into the night. Sometimes the blasts are so intensive that debris and rocks land up in our village.” Things took a turn for the worse when the falling debris led to the death of a teenage girl a few years back. According to the villagers, the matter was hushed up by the authorities and the family was paid a measly compensation.

The state of the workers at the WCL mine happens to be better than the workers at the KEMCL mine. Kuchankar said, “The workers have a basic salary of ₹ 20,000 per month. Apart from that, they also get medical facilities at the government hospital at a discounted rate. Moreover, all safety equipment is provided to the miners.”

The Road Ahead

The Baranj coal mine is scheduled to reopen in February 2017

The KEMCL has plans to reopen the Baranj mine in February 2017 after more than two years of inactivity. According to the president of the coal workers union, Pramod Mohod, the company is planning to replace its old workers. This could lead to a surge in unemployment rate in Baranj.

“Since the mine closed down two years ago, many of us started going to Bhadrawati for employment, but none of us managed to land a permanent job. I have been working as a mason at Bhadrawati for the past two years. It doesn’t pay much, but it keeps the house running,” says Godade.

Randive is optimistic of getting his old job back at the mine. “We know the land more than anyone. We sold our lands so that the mine could be opened. We’ve been loyal to the company so why will they lay us off?”

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Dilip Unnikrishnan
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