‘Illegal mining’ existed before nationalisation, it emerged – it was ‘illegalised’ – with the introduction of land property titles and the encroachment of common land by the colonial state. The process of ‘nationalisation’ re-shaped the ‘illegalised sector’ and its relation to the ‘official economy’, the boundaries of a hierarchical division within the local working class were re-drawn and enforced in legal terms.
It is estimated that 20 to 30 per cent of total coal production in India stems from illegalised mines. Summarised by illegality are mines of different characters: from small-scale village mining with hardly any machinery applied to ‘professional’ mines employing several hundred people, which often function in collaboration with management of state-company CIL, e.g. they receive by-passed working material from the official sector. In some cases, the same mine is operated both officially and unofficially, e.g. in a Bansra mine where 44 local brick kilns purchase the illegal coal mined from the 7 feet upper layer, whereas the 18-20 feet thick lower layer is worked by CIL. Mines are ‘illegalised’ by CIL decision that under official CIL conditions (wages, security etc.) the exploitation is not profitable. The mine then enters the labour intensive, low wage and precarious realm, where workers are under extra-pressure of law and mafia-type of middlemen. Some of the smaller mines mainly supply the wider rural industry, such as brick-kilns, or their product is sold on local markets, e.g. for domestic use, tea stalls etc.. Other coal enters the general wider circulation via transport contractors as middlemen.
Due to their labour intensive character illegalised mines suck in larger shares of the rural proletariat than the official mines. During the 1970s and 1980s to get a permanent job at CIL required personal connections, bribes, a certain official qualification. ‘Illegalised mines’ are part of the reproduction of a proletariat, which is increasingly expelled from the main mines through mechanisation and hierarchical labour markets. ‘Offering jobs’ and small business opportunities the illegalised mines became an important factor in local politics. It is said that no political party, which announced to close illegal mines would win a local election in Dhanbad area. The ‘Jharkhand Movement’ wanted to turn them into ‘cooperatives’, whereas later on the NGO sector saw them as ‘local development opportunities’. The following two quotations demonstrate how the ‘hellish character’ of these mines is re-packaged as ‘local development opportunity’ and ‘common right’ by the NGO sector
“Javir Kumar, 14, works in illegal coal mines, each a “rat hole,” 10 X 10 foot and 400 foot deep, where a mere slip of the foot will plunge one to a certain death. A large number of children aged below 14 are working in such mines, built unscientifically, in Jharkhand’s Hazaribagh district. These mine workers are mostly from Orissa, West Bengal, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Assam. Every five minutes, a wooden bucket brimming with coal is heaved out of a burrow. The coal is dumped on the side of the quarry before being loaded on to the waiting truck. Every day, a child mines 30-40 buckets. These mines are increasing in numbers, manned mostly by children ranging in age from 7 to 17.”
(April 2011 – http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/article1599973.ece)
“These are called peoples’ mines and they serve a significant purpose in local economies. The article’s thesis is that peasant communities are trying to claim back a portion of the local resources lost to them through appropriation by mining companies thus re-asserting their traditional rights to local mineral resources. In conclusion, the need for a new moral economy for mining regions is stressed: an economy in which local communities will play a powerful role.”
(Natural Resources Forum, Volume 27, Issue 1, pages 68-77, February 2003)
Accidents in the official mines often turn into triggers for unrest. In 1996, 64 miners drowned in Dhanbad because of flooding of mine. The only forces mobilized in significant strength were the police to lathi-charge and keep at bay the angry relatives and co-workers, who sought to confront the chief minister and other VIPs. After the flooding incidents, there were spontaneous protests in many mines against unsafe working conditions. But not only work is unofficial in the ‘illegalised’ mines, death is, too. Officially around 800 workers died in mining accidents in Dhanbad area in the two decades between 1980 and 1990s – the unofficial number including death in the ‘peoples’ mines will be higher. After fatal accidents in the unofficial mines surviving relatives are often threatened by thugs to keep stumm.
During the 1970s and 1980s the illegalised mines became one of the economic and social bases for the emerging Dhanbad mafia. In the following we have a brief look at the general position of the mafia in the reproduction of class relations.