The Coal-Mining Sector during Colonialism and after ‘Independence’

The Coal-Mining Sector during Colonialism and after ‘Independence’

In the following we have at the historical development of the mining industry and workers’ struggle in the area – from the ‘Colonial Times’ to ‘Independence’ after 1945 and nationalisation of the mining industry in 1971-3. On this background we then focus on the re-structuring process which took place since then: through ‘mafia mode of production’, mechanisation and casualisation.

Colonial Times

In the Dhanbad area, mining activities on an industrial level started by the mid-19th century. Before that village population engaged in small-scale mining, but mining became industrialised only with the colonial extraction efforts to connect the main trading and manufacturing centres with the ports via rail-ways. Mines were mainly ‘privately-owned’, although factions within the colonial regime proposed nationalisation. Early on the mining industry developed a separation into large mines, often employing over a thousand people, and small mines operated by less than 100 workers. This dualism persisted over time.

Around the 1910s larger mines and mining workers started to get exploited by ‘Indian’ owners, mainly coming from Gujarat and from the Railway contracting sector. Tata opened mines in Dhanbad in 1910 in order to supply their steel plant in Jamshedpur. Already earlier on, by 1870s a ‘national bourgeoisie’ had developed in the textile sectors, benefiting from the global crisis, which had hit the industry in England. With some decades delay, ‘Indian’ mine owners started to develop links with the emerging Nationalist movement, in addition to their collaboration with the colonial regime.

In 1920 around 100,000 people were employed in the official mines in Dhanbad area, this figure rose to 150,000 during the Second World War and stayed at around 130,000 till the 1970s. The composition of this work-force changed drastically over time. Initially local population, mainly ‘tribals’, were employed as ‘family gangs’ on piece-work system. From the 1910s onwards workers arrived from as far as Gurakhpur, Patna, Allahabad and even from the Punjab. They clearly outnumbered the ‘local’ workers by the 1950s. The other main shift concerned the gender composition. Women mining workers accounted for nearly half of the work-force during the early phase of mining. In 1938 female employment in mines got officially banned, but the regime continued to depend on the female work-force due the increased demand for coal during the World War period. After ‘Independence’ female workers were expelled from the main mines and pushed into the unofficial mining fringe.

The re-placement of ‘local’ workers by migrant workers was part of the mine owners’ effort to enforce a higher degree of work discipline. Local mining workers tend to work until their ‘financial needs’ were met and then stop for a while, either working on their fields or engage in other activities. Chief Inspector of mines’ annual report noted in 1904: Even in normal time the Dehatis would not work regularly. Some of them worked for six or seven days at a stretch and then returned to their home for a week and rest. The migrant workers had more difficulties to escape the work regime. The other main measure to enforce regular and extended working-times was the electrification, which took place in the bigger mines from the 1920s onwards. Electrical pumps were used in order to be able to continue work during the raining season and electrical lights facilitated longer working hours in the open-cast mines. [6]

An ‘official’ labour movement amongst the Dhanbad miners appeared during the upsurge of workers struggles all over India after the First World War, a second wave of disputes surged in the period 1938 to 1941 and then again after the Second World War up to 1948. In that sense the local struggles followed a very generalised global rhythm. The official unions remained integrated either within the tactical ‘class collaboration’ of the Nationalist movement or degenerated into company unions. In late 1921, the Jharia Trade Union Congress called for strike and the bigger collieries were practically shut down for a week. A strike occurred in the Giridih coalfield in January 1923, but the workers returned unconditionally within a fortnight. The only trade union found to be in existence in the coal industry at the end of the 1920s was the Indian Colliery Employees’ Association, but this association had only 2,000 members. The leadership of this union was in the hands of those who were part of the supervising staff.

In 1938 strikes took place at Bird and Co’s Katrasgarh collieries. It lasted for about three months and affected about 7,000 workers. This time labour protests were accompanied by formation of trade unions. At the end of the 1930s, three registered trade unions were found to operate in the Jharia coalfield – the Indian Colliery Labour Union, the Tata’s Collieries Labour Association and the Indian Miners’ Association. Their numbers of members were around 3,500 respectively. This cycle of struggle was interrupted by the intensification of the Second World War and the Nationalist (Congress) backing of the Allies – the backing of the imperial British state. Coal was essential for the Allied war production, so Congress dominated trade unions were held back from any action threatening to interrupt coal supply.

In sync with mining workers in the US and South Africa and the wider Indian working class unrest, struggles re-emerged from the abyss of the World War and rocked almost entire coalfield during 1945-48, mainly relating to the sharp general price increases. In Bhowra and Amlabad colliery production stopped for around three months and thirteen days in 1948. The ‘independent’ state reacted with both, repression of struggles and legal integration of the official labour movement, e.g. by passing the Factory Act in 1948, which guaranteed the ‘right’ to formal representation, and by setting up the First Pay Commission. [7]


Similar to other industries under the colonial regime, mining as well was characterised by low level of productive investment except in a few central mines and in times of increased demand. In 1951, the regime in ‘independent’ India faced following situation: Around 70 per cent of all mines did not use electrical power; only around 18 per cent of the underground mines operated coal cutting machines and less than 1 per cent of the coal was mechanically loaded. During the following two decades of five years plans the state had to centralise command over coal production: a World Bank loan was used during the Third Plan to push investment in 225 central, formally still private mines. The ‘developmental gap’ between the main mines and the smaller, but quantitatively dominating mines widened.

Between 1951 and 1971 the number of coal cutting machines went up by 118.9 per cent; mechanical loaders and conveyors by 537.5 and 1257.0 per cent, respectively – having started from a very low level. Mechanically cut coal accounted for 32.4 of the underground output in 1971, having increased at an average annual rate of 13.5 per cent. Mechanical loading increased to 2.7 per cent. Output levels rose from around 30 Mt after the Second World War to about 72 Mt in 1971, while official employment increased from about 350,000 in 1951 to a peak-level of 450,000 in 1963. With the onset of the crisis by the mid-1960s employment dropped to around 380,000 in 1971.

Together with the central economic plans, large-scale credits and state-controlled coal prices, institutions like the central pay commissions were set-up and the Congress state-party affiliated trade union INTUC was put in high-command over the representation of the mining work-force – which included physical attacks on any other forms of workers’ organisation which might have threatened the trinity of state-management-union [8]. The state in India had guaranteed price levels for coal, both for producers and industrial consumers, in the hope that stable prices would lead to more investment in the still private mines and relatively cheap energy provisions would boost the wider industrial sector.