One of the ‘aims’ of centralisation of mining capital under the state umbrella in the early 1970s was to further mechanisation. The next phase of mechanisation was accompanied by a massive shift in work-force after nationalisation 1973 – capital wanted to combine a fresh work-force with the new technology; and it was politically accompanied by the heavy blanket of state of Emergency from 1975 to 1977. Like in most other industries the Emergency was a peak-time of retrenchments, work intensification and re-structuring in the mining industry of Dhanbad. In 1978 the Munidih Project was declared the first fully mechanised mine in Asia after mechanised ‘self-advancing’ longwall technology was introduced for the first time in Indian mining history. Mining capital literally tried to escape from the troubled surface of the mining region, the Munidih Project became one of India’s deepest mines. The brutal force of mechanised road headers drove one part of the local working class 500 metres down into the earth, while another part was subjected to the personal violence of labour intensive regime in the unofficial mines nearby. The control over the mechanical automation of the early 1980s was intensified by the introduction of micro-electronics from the mid-1980s onwards.
During the 1980s the cogs of mechanisation met two related resisting dynamics: the struggles of workers in and against the re-structuring and the profit squeeze. Most of the ‘anti-mechanisation’ struggles reported are struggles of workers who would potentially be retrenched by the labour-saving consequences – there is little documentation of struggles ‘within and against the machine’. In the 1980s in a mining area in neighbouring West Bengal workers’ resistance brought a prestigious joint-venture project to a stand-still. Continued agitation by those being displaced and the contract workers employed for digging the shaft, forced the Russian corporation and CIL to abandon the experimental Nakrakonda project (which was meant to test the equipment and machinery before they were deployed on a large scale). The union leaders of the CITU, INTUC and AITUC signed various agreements accepting the demands of the management. This attitude of the main unions was and is wide-spread: acceptance of and collaboration in the re-structuring process in turn for recognition as the representing body of the then reduced core work-force. We document another example from 2002, which reveals the limits of ‘anti-mechanisation’ struggles.
In 2002 CIL management re-opened an open cast mining project in Koyagudem (Yellandu). The extraction begun with surface miner instead of the shovel and dumper, drastically reducing the number of workers necessary (from 317 to 18). On 5th October 2002 a thousand people were mobilized to obstruct the work of the surface miner – half of them were peasants and agricultural labourers mobilized from surrounding villages, 200 were coal miners and 300 were workers of motor transport, tiles and loaders. The mobilisation was accompanied by a radical-left splinter party. After remaining stalled for 55 days, work with the surface miner was recommenced by the management and contractor on 31st December under the cover of a massive police force. On 10th January the Parirakshana Union Committee called for encircling the Koyagudem open-cast mine and 4000 workers with hundreds of other people laid a seize that day. The ensuing gathering movement described above led to all unions giving a joint call for indefinite strike. Armed police manned the mines, residential colonies of workers and the offices. Hundreds of people including coal miners, were arrested daily, several lathi charges were resorted to. The strike continued for 15 days. However on 7th February 2003, four trade unions of Singareni Parirakshan Committee concluded an agreement with the management and abruptly called off the strike.
By the late 1980s the mechanisation drive rammed into the profit squeeze: out-put productivity might had been increased, total coal production doubled during the 1980s, but production costs per ton were not lowered too a more profitable level. In 1986-87 the Coal India Limited accumulated losses stood at 18,000 million Rs. Again the main trade unions became part-takers of managing ‘contradictive productivity’. In 1988 a committee which included top CIL officials and representatives of INTUC, AITUC and CITU concluded that “High OMS [out-put per man-shift] does not necessarily mean cost minimisation; between 1980-81 and 1985-86 while the wage cost per tonne of coal went up from Rs 73.18 to Rs 103.51, the total cost per tonne of coal went up from Rs 123.12 to Rs 214.20 per tonne. There was an increase in the real cost of production of coal as the price index rose by less than the 75 per cent increase in cost of production.” A concrete example was the Rajmahal Coal Mining Project in Jharkhand, at the time Asia’s largest open-cast coal mine. In the late 1980s it employed a workforce of only 2,400, most operations were automatised. But the production cost of coal were said to be 440 Rs per ton, whereas the sale price at the time was around 260 per ton.
In a way these conditions in the coal mining industry were symptomatic for the wider industrial environment and India’s economic situation as a whole. The state, as a major capitalist enterprise, defaulted under accumulated debts. In 1991 the Indian state had to declare that foreign exchange reserves were depleted and that it will not be able to pay back its foreign debts. A loan program was set-up and the ‘external loan conditions’ were used in order to attack the working class in India with a state regulated pressure of market-forces: liberalisation of the domestic market, lowering of trade barriers, privatisation. In the official mining industry the attack on labour costs took the form of redundancies and large scale casualisation of workers throughout the 1990s – we give a short overview on this period in the following section.