Gasping for Air, Bathing in Coal

Informal Labour in India’s Coalfields. By SURAVEE NAYAK

Sooner or later, India will have to move away from coal as its primary energy source, given the looming climate-change-induced disasters that await many South Asian countries if immediate steps are not taken. But the transition away from coal is complex and challenging because of the entanglement of coal with the livelihoods of local communitiesrevenue generation at multiple levels, besides a surge in energy demand. Thus, India at the Glasgow COP 26 committed to a ‘phase down of unabated coal power’ rather than a ‘phase out’ of coal. However, the country’s actions are quite contradictory to the global discourse: the rhetoric of renewables arises from concerns of energy security rather than climate justice.

Job losses and the retraining and reskilling of coal miners are dominant concerns for a ‘just transition’. This poses a particular challenge for India, where the coal sector has a massive proportion of informal labour (mostly unaccounted), drawn from migrant and local mining-affected communities. Any ‘just transition’ discourse has to bring together climate justice and labour justice. The hazardous and precarious labour of diverse sets of informal workers in the coalfields should be foregrounded to discuss the alternative imaginaries and transformation towards more dignified, safe and better jobs. The highly exploitative working conditions and depletion of bodies provide an opening to reflect upon the futures of informal workers.

Informal labour in the coalfields

My long-term ethnographic research, between 2018-2020 at the Talcher coalfields in Odisha, maps the labouring conditions of informal workers in and around coal mines. The coalfields fields are operated by a subsidiary of the public sector unit Coal India Ltd, Mahanadi Coalfields, which was the largest coal producing company in India in 2021-22.

Since liberalisation in the 1990s, informal employment at the bottommost of the labour hierarchy has become extremely diverse (De Neve 2019). A large and booming share of the informal labour that works in the coal sector may not directly contribute to the production of coal as a commodity. Outsourcing through private companies and local contractors supplying labour have steadily expanded in the public sector coal mines (Nayak 2022). Unfortunately, informal workers are not systematically recorded by any official database. “They play with numbers; many informal workers never appear on papers,” a union leader told me….

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