How unplanned coal mine closures in India are affecting dependent communities, especially women

Local women collecting coal from an abandoned mine in Kotma for cooking.

Local women collecting coal from an abandoned mine in Kotma for cooking. Photo by Shuchita Jha.

  • The closure of ten mines in Bijuri and Kotma municipalities of Anuppur, Madhya Pradesh, has left around 5,000 people unemployed, triggering social and economic challenges, especially for women.
  • India’s coal mine closure framework, initiated with assistance from the World Bank in 2021, aims to address institutional governance, community livelihoods, and environmental reclamation.
  • Organisations in India, which are developing people-centric transition plans in coal-mining regions, can learn from certain initiatives in Germany.

Rekha Kol, 16, spends her days helping her mother with household chores and looking after her younger cousins next door. This has been her routine ever since she dropped out after finishing her primary education from the government school in the Bijuri municipality of the Anuppur district of Madhya Pradesh, located 550 kilometres from the state capital, Bhopal.

“I did not want to study further,” she says, eyes cast downward. In reality, however, she did want to study, but her parents could not get her enrolled in middle school as it was far away and, with no family income, they could not afford a bicycle.

Her father worked as a contractual labourer in a coal mine nearby, for almost 12 years, but he has been out of work since mining operations stopped in 2020. Unable to afford even two square meals a day, education is now a distant dream for Rekha.

“My father now works as a labourer. Sometimes he is able to get work three times a week, but for most weeks, it is hardly one or two days,” she adds. Her father barely makes Rs. 1,000 per week. With a family of five to feed, her parents married off her elder sister when she was 15 years of age. Rekha now dreads that her parents might be on the lookout for a groom for her as well but has no say in the matter.

There are many young girls in Anuppur district of Madhya Pradesh with similar stories. In the last decade a total of ten mines have become inoperational in Bijuri and Kotma municipalities of this district. In Kotma, Harad Open Cast Mine (OCM), Daikhal OCM, Kotma colliery Underground 11-12 SECL and 1 and 2 Jamuna Kotma UG have been closed for many years while in Bijuri, Old Jhimar mine, Rajnagar OCM, Malga Ink Line in Ramnagar region, 14-14 South Jhimar and Somna colliery, all under South Eastern Coal Fields (SECL), a subsidiary of Coal India Limited (CIL), have stopped operations. Whether they will reopen or shut down as part of India’s energy transition is yet to be known.

Around 5,000 people directly and indirectly dependent on coal mines have become unemployed in the last decade in the district. Many have migrated out for work due to unplanned closures and abandoning of mines due to various reasons.

“After ten mines became inoperational back to back since 2013, unemployment is at an all-time high now. These labourers who work in mines on a contractual basis are unskilled and have no other means for sustenance,” says Sunil Chourasiya, President of Dumarkachhar Municipal Council, Bijuri.

He adds that as the breadwinners are rendered out of work, the financial stress is borne by the whole family, especially young women.

“Cases of domestic violence and girls dropping out of school have become pretty common here,” laments Chourasiya. He adds that there is a large percentage of teenage girls who are not enrolled in schools after class five.

A local woman collecting coal from an abandoned mine in Kotma. Photo by Shuchita Jha.

The 2022 Annual Status of Education Report shows that Madhya Pradesh was one of the four states where the proportion of 15 to 16-year-old girls not enrolled in school was the highest in the country, at 17%. As per the National Family Health Survey- 5 data, among the 15-49 age group, only 28.6% of women received 10 years of schooling while over 72% of women remained illiterate in the state.

While the NFHS-5 reports a drop in cases of child marriages from 29.8% in 2015-16 to 18.6% in the district, Chourasiya, adds that many people from tribal communities do not follow the traditional marriage system, allowing a young couple to stay together informally over long periods, calling them distant cousins.

“The actual number of child marriages is far higher than recorded because the customs of the Kol and Korku communities differ from the mainstream culture,” adds Chourasiya. “This makes it difficult to trace the number of (officially) married persons.”

With the mine closures, high-ranking government officials deployed by SECL to oversee the operations have moved out. This has led to loss of business for those catering to the daily needs and domestic work of the officials who were stationed in Anuppur district.

“Many officials, who used to employ locals in the area for household chores like cooking, cleaning and gardening, have moved out, leaving the locals jobless. There are many of those official posts lying vacant but SECL is not filling those. Bijuri is almost on the verge of becoming a ghost town,” says Naveen Masi, a cable-service provider in Bijuri. Masi, who had 3,200 clients in 2013, lost almost 90% of them by 2023 when the SECL employees retired and left Anuppur and new employees were not recruited. Internet service providers, hotels, grocery stores and salons are the other businesses hit.

Different states, similar stories

Across India, over 50 lakh people are dependent on coal mines for employment in India. As per the Indian government, there are a total of 169 pre-2009 and 130 post-2009 mines, which are considered abandoned, discontinued, or closed.  India plans to close another 30 mines in the next three years.

A policy paper by iFOREST states that of the 144 coal mines operational in Jharkhand, over 50% of them are closed or abandoned and of the operational mines, half are unprofitable. The mines in Jharkhand alone employ over three lakh people, directly and indirectly, states a study by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and Climate Investment Fund (CIF).

Coal mine closures tend to affect women gravely.  Stories similar to Rekha’s and Sunita’s have been noted in other coal-mining states of West Bengal and Jharkhand. As per NFHS-5, the percentage of women who were married before turning 18, was 32.2% in Jharkhand and 41.6% in West Bengal.

A goods train carrying coal from Anuppur mines for power-plants in Gujarat. Photo by Shuchita Jha.

In the history of mine closure in India, there is no gender justice, says Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt, Professor of Resource, Environment and Development at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University. Lahiri-Dutt has worked extensively on coal mine closures and gender justice in the Raniganj coal mining belt in West Bengal and in the coal mining districts of Jharkhand.

“Raniganj-Jharia coal belt had an early history of hiring women as part of a family unit of labour. While men would cut the coal, the women would transport it in baskets, working as a loader. There was some [semblance of] gender-justice then and many tribal families built themselves up from there. Even though the working conditions were far from perfect, the jobs provided them with a regular source of livelihood,” she tells Mongabay-India.

But after the India Mines Act was passed in 1952, the government stopped the hiring of women in mines, especially banning night shifts and underground work as per the general guideline of the International Labour Organisation. After mechanisation of mining, around the 1990s, the nature of work for women changed even further and they were hired as cleaners and servers to bring tea and other menial jobs, marginalising them further.

“If a man died working in the mine, the wife would get a job on compassionate grounds, but there would be so much pressure on the woman to pass on the job to the son. The prestige and sense of personhood were snatched away from women after the 1990s when open cast mines started to come up. This further changed the status of women in the social fabric, and families started treating them as a burden, something that we see happening even today,” explains Lahiri-Dutt.

India’s coal mine closure plan

As India transitions away from fossil fuels in its bid to phase down coal by 2070, it started working on a coal mine closure framework with the help of the World Bank in 2021 to formulate guidelines to ensure the livelihood of coal mining communities in states like Jharkhand, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh. The mine closure framework will focus on three major aspects–institutional governance, people and communities, and environmental reclamation and land repurposing–on the principles of a just-transition.

Sandeep Pai, Research Director at Swanti Global, a think-tank working on climate change, says that while India formulated a mine closure plan in 2009, and revised it in 2013 and 2019, it was not enforceable by law, and is only a set of guidelines.

“India is the new kid on the block compared to the United States where talks of a just-transition began 40 years ago in the context of industrial declines, and Germany where it started around 30 years ago. Indian policy makers are still formulating guidelines for a just-transition,” says Pai. “It would be interesting to see what the policy direction of just-transition would be – whether it would be about creating livelihood opportunities for coal mine workers or it’ll just be about planned closure of mines or preserving the environment,” he adds.

Lahiri-Dutt points out that since 1952, women in the mining sector have been so invisible that the government, private companies and even trade unions do not consider or have specific plans for them.

As the fall out of unplanned mine closures takes place in some parts of India, coal mine expansions are going on in parallel in other parts. India is far from phasing out coal and is, in fact, increasing coal production. Coal India Limited aims to produce over one billion tonnes of coal in 2023-24. Meanwhile, some mines have run out of reserves or are inoperational. The closures and expansions are happening simultaneously but not always in the same region.

Learning from Germany

When Germany saw a wave of unplanned mine closures after its reunification in the 1990s, it resulted in mass unemployment within the mining and associated industries. René Schuster, a Member of the Lignite Committee of the State of Brandenburg, Germany, calls it a ‘collective trauma’ that continues to affect the mentality of the region. But now, coal mine closures in the country are far more coordinated and planned.

Lahiri-Dutt adds that the University of Rhur in Bochum, Germany, used to be in the coal mining region. The government poured in money to incentivise German citizens working as professors in other countries to return, and created courses in humanities, social science, STEM fields and encouraged the ex-miners’ children to study.

“The European Bank of Reconstruction and Development is pouring in money in the hands of women, entrepreneurship building, leadership building, and skills training to ensure they have good opportunities post coal phase-out,” adds Lahiri-Dutt. She adds that this is what India needs to do as well.

Other initiatives are also aiding this just-transition in Germany.  The FWieKraft- Frauen, Leben, Lausitz (Women, Life, Lusatia), founded by Julia Gabler and six other women, empower women from coal-mine dependent communities through freelance work and community engagement. Revierwende (District Transition) forum, established by the German coal union in Lusatia, has been working to upskill women and provide them with alternative sources of livelihood.“We are expecting to create 20,000 new jobs in the region that will support not just the locals but also immigrant families,” says Marko Schmidt, a team leader of the Revierwende (District Transition) forum.

Germany’s track-record demonstrates that managing the complexity of coal phaseout and transition is achievable when both local and national governments adopt a more coordinated and inclusive approach, which could inform India for its future transition.

While Pai calls Germany an ‘implementation country’ and India an ‘engagement country’, Lahiri-Dutt opines that Germany is way ahead and the challenges in the two nations are vastly different.

“Our challenges are closer to South Africa, Romania, Indonesia and Vietnam,” she says.

Navigating a new just realm

While implementation is still slow in India, planning for rehabilitation and development of coal mining communities is taking place at a fast rate. Many non-government organisations are undertaking research and studies to design strategies for upskilling the labourers engaged in mining and generating livelihood opportunities by economic diversification.

Contractual coal-mine labourers take the pledge of safety before beginning their evening shit in the Jhiriya Coal Mine in Bijuri. Photo by Shuchita Jha.

As part of India’s net-zero target, Ramapati Kumar, CEO of Centre for Environment and Energy Development (CEED) told Mongabay-India that the non-government organisation is working towards a people-centric transition and developing plans for livelihood generation, taking inspiration from initiatives in the West.

“We are developing economic diversification plans in 13 districts of Jharkhand which will be based on the principles of gender, equity, justice and sustainability. As the mines run out of reserves in many regions, we will design plans to rehabilitate the communities in the region by upskilling and reskilling them through various programmes,” he says.

Kumar adds that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. The planning and implementation of these strategies will depend on the need and demand of the locals.

“Each district has its own set of opportunities and challenges. Setting up new industries and manufacturing units, increasing investments on renewable energy projects and providing jobs and agriculture by restoring the landscape to its former state are few areas we are working on at the moment. But, it is an uphill battle and the journey has just begun,” he says.

The story was done as part of the CLEW cross-border reporting grant.


Banner image: Local women collecting coal from an abandoned mine in Kotma for cooking. Photo by Shuchita Jha.

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