Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Black from a coalfield

In 2005, the roof of a coal mine at Sondha ‘D’in Jharkhand collapsed leaving 14 workers dead. Four years on, I was presented with the opportunity to visit the mine thanks to my father’s visit for a Coalfield Workers Union meeting.
The day of my visit co-incided with a pit meeting at Sondha ‘D’where the workers union was filing a demand sheet to the project officer stationed there. As I entered the meeting space, the area secretary was talking about a demand for a provision of better medical facilities at the hospital and the need for a female doctor. The speakers voice was loud and energetic but the mood around was oddly subdued. CCL fixes the minimum monthly salary of workers at Rs.9000, but keeping in consideration the dangers they face the money seems meager. The only hospital in the area looked disheveled and bare, prompting some trade union leaders travelling with me to comment that a visit needs to be scheduled.
I was walking to the mine with a gentleman I’d met for the first time that morning. He was a senior worker for CCL at Bhurkunda and CMU Vice president of the sector. It was only 9 in the morning, but searingly hot. The monsoons haven’t come yet (officially we are struck by drought now). As we are walking towards the mine,I casually ask if we’re going to go inside.
“Aap aaye hain thoda galat time par. Abhi shift change hoga. Par haan andar jaana hai to chaliye.”
We reach the trolley stash yard. There are several workers just sitting there, chewing tobacco and staring at us. I’ve been watching them at this while I’ve been climbing. My guide points me towards the entrance and tells me to feel free to shoot as much as I can from the outside. He excuses himself, muttering something about giving the workers a piece of his mind. I ease my camera out and walk towards one of the trolleys. A loud voice disrupts the otherwise silent setting. Kishoreji is talking to the workers.
“Aap log udhar baithak laga hai. Gaye kyun nahin?”
“Arey! Kahe ka baithak babu, kuch hoga nahin….”
“Haan, bilkul sahi aur aap baithe rahne se jaroor hoga na. Jaaiye kya ho raha hai. Aaj Project officer ke paas demand sheet dene vale hain….”
The workers not attending the meeting have been barred from doing so by senior officers of the CCL. A cut in salary will be effected if they don’t comply. I drift off, in search of my pictures.

A little later, Kishore ji walks me through the area. He shows me the entrance to the mine where the accident occurred. He points out the workers walking in, and makes me take note of the fact that some of them do not have boots on, simply because they’ve worn out before time (a pair is supposed to last 6-8 months after which you are allotted a new set) and the worker can’t afford a new pair. I notice signs painted all around, most of them declaring the need for worker safety.
“Huh!” I snap my head back, and stare at him dumbfounded. I cannot believe I’ve missed out on something that could’ve made a good quote. It sounded like a good quote.
Sanjay Bhaiya is with me. He takes stock of the situation and quickly asks Kishore ji to repeat himself.
“Bharat abhi bhi Ghulam hai.”
We nod obediently.
“Chaley hain tarakki karne. Sansad mein vote ho raha hai nuclear deal par, aur coal sector mein abhi bhi samjhota nahi hai.”
Walking silently he points at a pulley used to run the trolleys in the middle of the tracks.
“Yeh pulley, bahut dhyan se rakhna padta hai. Acha se grease laga ke, vibration na ho taki.”
“Vibration hone se kya hoga?”
“Vibration hone se voh ujad jayega. Phir udte huye, mine ke andar speed se ghuse ga.”
Kishore ji pauses to spit out his tobacco.
“Mine ke andar jis bhi worker se uska bhet hoga uske bete ki naukri pukki!”
We smile wryly looking at each other. For the rest of the trip I’m left in silence. I decide to not go inside. Permissions are required (Kishore ji makes a face when I say this), and I don’t have a flash.

Pictures are up at

I've tried to give you a map of where exactly this is. Hazaribagh is the place where i spotted the Siddho-Kano statues. East is Giridih, my hometown.