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SINKING DEEPER INTO THE DARKEST OF PITS

Barely 10 km from Hazaribagh town, the highway forks abruptly towards the left to Barhi, a Naxalite hotspot. The dusty pot-holed track runs through the semi-urban settlement till it reaches a cluster of low hills. From here, it meanders into the coal country, pausing briefly at Central Coalfields Limited’s Tapin (north), Parej (east and west) and Pindra collieries before veering into Tata Steel’s sprawling West Bokaro open cast project. The terrain, once lush and spectacular, is now pockmarked with more than a dozen mines, stray heaps of slag and boulders dumped in careless abandon by over-zealous prospectors. The general ambience is one of decay— as bleak as the thick curtain of soot that shrouds the foliage.

Thirty-year-old Sunita Oraon and her mate, Pandramani Devi, a petite 40-plus Santhali woman, sit amid the boulders outlying one such shallow pit midway between Tapin and Parej. They have been camping at the mine since dawn in search of head-loading work. But nothing has come their way. The day before, Sunita had managed to make Rs 100 by loading coal on trucks, but today was lean. Pandramani was upbeat, for she had been promised work and baksheesh by the contractor at noon. However, she had to earn the “tip” by providing “meaningful companionship” to the upper-caste (Lala) middleman in-charge of loading the previous night.

Till a decade ago, Parej was a green heaven. “The fields were verdant and the harvest bountiful. We tilled our land and had enough to feed our families throughout the year. During summer, we collected firewood from the forest and sold them at Barhi,’’ recounts Sunita, who came to Parej a shy 15-year-old bride in the late Eighties. Her life was secure till the “government agents” struck gold on her land and uprooted her. Sunita’s village was acquired for mining and her family “relocated” to a rehabilitation site, seven kilometres away. The matchbox-like houses with cracked walls and leaking roofs, built under the Indira Awas Yojna, stunted Sunita’s life forever. The meagre amount paid as compensation vanished in no time, and the family of eight was left to fend for itself as daily wage earners. While Sunita scouts for work at Parej, her husband, Rupchand, treks 15 km to Pindra every morning. Her kids, all school dropouts, hang around the mine for odd jobs.

Though the “black gold” beneath Sunita’s land has set the government cash box ringing and feeds the giant furnaces churning steel in neighbouring Bokaro and Jamshedpur, the pits have had a catastrophic impact on the socio-economic milieu and gender balance in the region. The women have been hardest hit by the mining operations, and according to a study commissioned by the Indian Statistical Institute, New Delhi, displacement among them in the region’s coal belt is the highest at 40 per cent.

According to the study, over 90 per cent women in the Hazaribagh-Chhatra districts have lost their agricultural land to mines and only 40 per cent of them know exactly how much land they have lost. With the influx of outsiders, destruction of forests and erosion of primary economic activities— agriculture and collection of forest produce — gender equilibrium has gone for a toss. As women form the bulk of the active workforce in the tribal society, they have been sucked into the seamy underbelly of progress. Crime statistics (from the district police files) cite that six rape cases are reported on an average every month in the coal belt of Dhanbad-Jharia and Hazaribagh alone. This adds up to roughly 72 cases every year, with many more going unreported. In most cases, the victims are tribals and the perpetrators from different (upper and backward) caste groups that call the shots in the respective areas.

Beena Stanis, a Hazaribagh-based social researcher, says: “One of the most alarming fallout is the dislocation of the women labour force. Women who earlier worked on the fields and at home suddenly find themselves jobless and in a way, homeless, too. Unable to find steady jobs at the mines, they work as daily wage earners at the construction sites and at the brick kilns between Ranchi, Ramgarh, Barhi and Hazaribagh. Exploitation of these women at the kilns is high because most of them migrate without their husbands and families. This breakdown the ethnic family system has led to a spurt in desertions, broken marriages and polygamy among the floating labour force. Women are picked up by single men at the kilns and dumped after being used.’’ Last month, a 19-year-old Santhali kiln labourer from Hazaribagh was gangraped and murdered by an upper-caste (Rajput) kiln owner, the son of a village mukhiya and their henchmen on the outskirts of the city. Such incidents are common.

Women’s traditional control over land in a tribal society is not in terms of ownership, but in the right to use the land. They till the land, harvest the crop and even sell the produce. Thus, land acquisition by mining companies reduces women’s role on the field. It confines them to the home and binds them to domesticity. Since the projects are capital intensive, opportunities to pick up new skills are scant, more so for women. So they are forced to work as contract labourers and as domestic help in urban centres, vulnerable to sexual abuse. Besides, they are also exposed to domestic violence and health hazards, as mine owners often encourage the tribal labourers to drink and distribute free liquor to keep a leash on them.

Dwindling forest produce has changed the traditional diet. Cereals like rice and wheat have replaced the staple fruits, vegetables, mahua, bajra, pulses and maize grown on the fields. As payments in mines are erratic, the labourers cannot afford to buy cereals at the market rate as the public distribution system has broken down in most of these areas. Women often stay hungry to ensure adequate food for the family. This has led to a spurt in malnutrition, calcium deficiency and blood-related diseases among them. Unwanted pregnancies are also on the rise.

Central Coalfields officials, however, refuse to acknowledge the skewed gender scenario. At the Ashoka-Piprawar projects, officials claim that the villagers have not lost their homes. “We have trained the women in vocational courses like carpet weaving, poultry and livestock farming,’’ claims a senior official. But a study by a non-governmental organization reveals that less than half of them have benefited from these.

Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt, a senior faculty member at Burdwan University and an activist, argues in her study: “What is seen in these mines is a classic example of feminization of poverty, when development brings about gender-specific poverty. A decaying agricultural base, depleting resources and near-absence of opportunities in this mono-industrial region have completely alienated poor adivasi and lower-caste women from the mining sector.’’

The situation is almost similar to that of the mines in Brazil, where women, after losing their land, have been forced to work as cook-cum-sex slaves for miners at makeshift camps on the periphery of the mines. According to global mine activist and ecologist, Victoria Tauli Corpuz: “As women are the key users of land, mining strips them of all their rights. Companies usually negotiate only with men.”

Since there is not much of organized activism among women miners in the region, protests, mostly sporadic, are limited to the individual level. Political muzzle is the biggest stumbling block along with the might and covert gender bias of the mazdoor unions, which cater to the interest of the male workforce. These unions seldom rush to the aid of women who lose their husbands and sons in mine disasters. As a result, most of the destitute women take to illegal mining— manual extraction of coal from abandoned pits — to eke out a living. The abandoned mines are potentially hazardous and cave in at random. According to a rough estimate by the Hazaribagh-based Prerna Resource Centre, over 400 women have been killed in “illegal” mine mishaps since 1998. Since the police and the administration deny the incidents and the victims’ kin remain silent fearing legal reprisal, the deaths are eventually hushed up.

What is needed urgently is combative action to ensure equal participation and right to rehabilitation. The Narmada dam agitation and its prime crusader, Medha Patkar, who speaks on behalf of the women oustees, could be inspiration for a leadership to emerge from within the tribal society to set right the gender scale in the mining sector.

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