Sunday, November 27

Deadly fossil fuel in India: photo essay | coal

Beauty Devi, 34, an illegal coalminer, lost her husband when he was 25 in an accident while he was extracting coal from an abandoned tunnel. Devi has two sons: Vishal Kumar, 13, and Naman Kumar, 11.

She wakes up early in the morning, before sunrise, and heads towards an abandoned tunnel of an inactive coalmine. It takes almost two hours to walk there from her home.

She spends the entire day extracting coal. The mines are extremely risky because underground fires are widespread in the region. Toxic gases fill the tunnels, making it unfit for breathing. She has to walk almost 300ft inside the tunnel to work.

Beauty Devi extracting coal

After reaching the tunnel, Devi starts extracting coal from a shelf using her axe. Afterwards, her and her two sons fill buckets with coal and return to their home by evening. They carry litti and chokha (a kind of stuffed bread and mashed potato) for their lunch.

Devi’s younger son, Naman, likes studying and is in grade 6. Sometimes he doesn’t go to the mine and instead goes to school. But when his family needs him, he is forced to skip school and go to the mine with his mother and older brother.

Beauty and her family standing over fire

After returning home, Devi and her sons burn coal to make coke in front of their home and sell it to local teashops and restaurants. They earn almost $3 a day. Their house spends large parts of the day engulfed in smoke.

Beauty preparing coke
Beauty counting money

The tunnels are the remnants of abandoned opencast mines. When the mining companies no longer consider them viable, they abandon it. The local villagers then create illegal tunnels into the mine to extract the remaining coal. Sometimes the roofs of the tunnels collapse due to heavy rainfall. Underground fires have also killed many people.

Vishal Kumar exits the tunnel with a bag of coal

  • Vishal Kumar, 13, Beauty’s elder son, carrying a bucket full of coal from an abandoned coal tunnel. The roof of the tunnel is so low that you have to bend down to enter and leave.

Vishal with blackened face
Vishal Kumar drinking water
Vishal in bed

Opencast coalmines are a threat to the environment. Toxic air pollutants released from the mines contribute greatly to global warming. In India, 80% of the country’s electricity comes from coal – the country is third in terms of carbon emissions.

Jharia coalmine helps boost India’s economy and also serves as an earning opportunity to the local villagers, but what they earn barely keeps them alive. The locals are so poor they often consider selling their children to the mine mafias or sending them to work as laborers for extra income.

Children here regularly suffer from malnutrition, skin diseases, and other conditions. The constant exposure to pollution from living near the mines has turned their skin pale and their eyes yellow.

Mist over muddy terrain

The mines themselves are even dangerous. Poisonous gases such as carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide are rampant there. The gases cause skin and lung diseases such as tuberculosis and other respiratory issues.

The underground fires make the situation even more hazardous. Accidental deaths are commonplace. The fires regularly trigger sinkholes, causing homes and water pipes to collapse, and workers are often trapped or killed in the mines. The constantly burning underground fires have forced the locals to abandon their homes and relocate.

glowing earth
Miner brushes his teeth

Jharia is a hive of illegal mining activity. The villagers, including children, have no other work options than to labor in the mines for less than $2 a day. They barely manage two meals a day, and cannot afford to send their children to school. Their children are recruited into warring gangs. The mining mafias make their lives hell.

beauty sitting

the Joan Wakelin Bursary offers £2000 for the production of a photographic essay on an overseas social documentary issue. The Bursary was established in 2005 in memory of distinguished documentary photographer and Honorary Fellow of The Society, Joan Wakelin.

The Bursary funds new projects only. We do not support on-going projects, neither does the Bursary support projects requiring travel to or within war zones.

Information on how to apply for the 2023 Bursary will be available on the Royal Photographic Society and the Guardian websites early next Spring.

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