India is about to host the Commonwealth Games but, even as it enjoys an economic boom thanks to its coal reserves, many of its rural poor are forced to steal the black gold in order to survive
WOBBLING and pushing their bikes laden high with stolen coal, the coal cycle wallahs slowly make their way through rural Jharkhand's steep and twisting forest roads. Home to the largest coal belt in Asia, Jharkhand has been plagued by poverty, lawlessness, bad governance and corruption for more than half a century. It also contains the vast majority of India's rich mineral deposits which, like every coal mine, are state owned.
However, it is unlikely the coal cycle wallahs of Jharkhand will benefit from India's predicted rise to becoming the world's third largest economy over the next 25 years. Indeed, the work they do is a stark illustration of poverty in the midst of abundant fossil fuel resources. They come from the remote and extremely poor east Indian states of Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal.
Jharkhand generates more than two thirds of India's electricity. Yet despite its great mineral wealth few of Jharkhand's 30 million mainly tribal inhabitants see any of the financial benefits mining has brought. With few jobs available in the mines, the coal cycle wallahs must scavenge from illegal pits, frequently loading up to 300kg of coal into jute bags then on to the frames of their steel-reinforced bicycles.
The teetering bikes are then pushed by the wallahs up steep roads and through Maoist rebel-controlled forests, often transporting their cargo for days at a time. They travel in groups to avoid trouble, helping one another on the steepest stretches. When they eventually reach the state capital, Ranchi, the coal is hawked to householders.
Dependence on coal for domestic use is widespread. Small stoves, called cholis, belch out thick black smoke inside villagers' cramped homes, leading to respiratory problems and poor health.
With the money they get – around 300 rupees or 4 for a load – the coal cycle wallahs replace the chains on their bikes and return to the mine to start the process all over again. It's incredibly hard work. Many suffer respiratory and rheumatic problems. Most look older than their years after a lifetime of work and chronic malnutrition. But they do the job because there is no alternative.
It is estimated that every year in India, up to 5 million tonnes of coal is illegally mined and distributed in this way. India's economy is growing and the country will host the Commonwealth Games in October, when all eyes will be on Delhi.
Many pledges have been made regarding air quality and green energy, yet India continues to rely on cheap coal, the dirtiest source of energy on the planet. As a result, India is set to become the world's third largest CO2 producer by 2030.
The coal cycle wallahs claim they are not thieves, and are not stealing coal. Mine owners are bribed to turn a blind eye, leaving the wallahs dependent on this grey market for their livelihoods.
Scraping a living collecting this black gold under the ever watchful eyes of East India's coal mafia, where corrupt officials pocket the rewards, the wallahs struggle to feed their families.
But, as India heads into an increasingly coal-powered future, the wallahs, like most of India's 800 million rural population, look set to continue to subsist on the slim pickings left behind.
This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday on 20 June.