Every day at sundown, about a dozen villagers from this village in the Jharia region in eastern India crawl like moles into a dark, airless hole punched 4 metres into the earth.
Working by torchlight, they spend hours each night ripping coal out of hard stone with hammers and pick axes, braving dangers such as cave ins and poisonous gas. For the impoverished residents of Jharia, stealing coal - about 12 to 15 sacks a night - from such hostile pits to sell in the region's flourishing black market is a dangerous way of life. But it is lucrative business. Each of the sacks holds up to 15kg of coal that sells for between 6 rupees (47 fils) and 10 rupees a kilo.
Beneath their feet lies one of India's largest coal deposits. In Jharia, where underground coal mining officially began in 1894, there is US$12 billion (Dh44.07bn) of coal deposits, the government says. In the past decade, residents of Jairampur, who requested anonymity fearing their village could be raided by authorities, have dug several such holes to reach the coal. Such illegal mining is rampant in this coal belt. Narendra Singh, a senior engineer with the Jharia rehabilitation and development authority, a government welfare agency, calls it "small-scale pilfering".
Mr Singh says larger thefts worth "millions of rupees" goes on around 23 underground and nine open cast mines by a dangerous "coal mafia" suspected of thriving with political and bureaucratic patronage. But no one knows for certain who the "mafia" members are. There have been no arrests or convictions, even though the government admits illegal mining is rampant. India has a mining industry worth $34.34bn, according to the latest India Mining Report, a privately published survey. It is expected to reach a total value of $45.4bn by 2013.
The country is endowed with 86 minerals, according to the ministry of mining. India is the world's third-largest producer of coal and bauxite, the fourth-largest producer of iron ore and number five worldwide in manganese production. With 8,700 operating mines in the country, minerals comprise 16 per cent of India's exports and generate employment for more than 1.1 million people. But the government estimates there are 15,000 illegal mines across the country.
India's government is not only losing out on revenue due to the rampant plundering of its mineral wealth but illegal mining is severely damaging the environment. The government plans to introduce a new law in parliament this year to curb illegal mining. The mines and minerals development and regulation (MMRD) act seeks to set up a task force to take on illegal mineral extraction and transport. Those apprehended will be brought before one of 50 special fast-track courts being set up to handle the cases. If a registered mining company is caught mining illegally, it could lose its licence and face a lifetime ban.
"There is a huge quantum of illegal mining in the country," Bijoy Krishna Handique, the union minister of mines and development for India's north-eastern region told Frontline, a national weekly. Mr Handique admitted poor regulation had given a free rein to illegal mining: "Our emphasis now is on local development and involving the local population in bringing down illegal mining." India also plans to make corporate social responsibility obligatory for mining companies.
Since India's independence in 1947, mining activities have displaced 250 million people from their lands, according to "Rich Lands, Poor People", a 2008 report released by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), an environmental group in New Delhi. Mining development has led to growing conflicts in the country's mining zones. Sixty per cent of the country's mineral rich districts are affected by a Maoist insurgency.
Much of India's mineral wealth lies in remote, densely forested areas that are home to poor tribal people, who have developed a hostility towards the mining industry. The UK mining giant Vedanta Resources, which plans to build a bauxite mine, faces stiff opposition from the local Dongria Kondh tribe. In January last year, 10,000 protesters formed a 17km-long human chain around Niyamgiri mountain, which is considered sacred, to protest the company's plans.
This year, Amnesty International accused Vedanta of failing to "respect and protect the human rights of the Dongria Kondh affected by mining and refinery projects". Rejecting Amnesty International's report, Vedanta said this year its project "will deliver significant stimulus to the local community, especially historically underdeveloped areas of Orissa". The company says is has so far provided assistance for 120 families displaced by its mine and offered a member of each family a job.
Vedanta also reiterated it had met the Indian government's pollution and environmental norms and has spent 505.3 million rupees to lessen the impact of its mining on wildlife. The Indian government is expected to announce this month whether it will allow the project to proceed. The government hopes to avoid such situations by providing tribal communities that relinquish their lands to mining companies with an ownership share of the project.
MMRD aims to make mining companies share 26 per cent of their net profit with the displaced communities. It also proposes to minimise damage to the environment. Mining companies have not officially reacted to the proposal. The CSE report estimates about 164,000 hectares of forest has been used for mining in the country. It says iron-ore mining used 77 million tonnes of water in 2006, enough to meet the daily needs of more than 3 million people.
Mining of major minerals generated about 1.84 billion tonnes of waste in 2006, most of which has not been disposed of properly. Coal mining, which accounts for 80 per cent of all mining activities in India, is the main culprit, according to the report. Every tonne of coal extracted generates between three and four tonnes of waste. The Blacksmith Institute, an advocacy group based in New York, says the Sukinda Valley in Orissa, which contains 97 per cent of India's chromite ore, is among the 10 most polluted places on earth, ranked alongside Chernobyl, the site of the Ukrainian nuclear disaster.
If MMRD is approved, mining companies will be blocked from tapping into up to 35 per cent of the country's largest coal reserves because of environment sensitivity. But even after this law is passed, any success lies in enforcement, the government admits. "There are people who advocate nationalisation of mines, but after 63 years of independence that does not seem to be a practical proposal," said Mr Handique.
"What is required is sustainable development of mines and sustainable development of the mining areas. The thrust of the revised MMDR is towards that." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org