The coal-cycle wallahs of Jharkhand, pushing 300kg for 30km to earn Dh11

Thousands of coal-cycle wallahs in the Indian state of Jharkhand earn a poor and dangerous livelihood transporting heavy loads of illegally mined coal long distances to sell for tiny amounts.

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RANCHI // Dinood starts his working day shortly before 4am, packing around 300kg of coal in nylon sacks and tying them to a one-pedal bicycle with no chain.

He then sets off from the outskirts of the Barej mine in India's north-east to the town of Hazaribagh, pushing the bike 30 kilometres on a journey that will take between 12 and 14 hours, after which he hopes to sell his entire load for the equivalent of about Dh11.

There are thousands more coal-cycle wallahs in the state of Jharkhand. They can be seen along the edges of every major motorway, leaning their weight into the handlebars as a long line of lorries and jeeps billow exhaust fumes and dust into their faces. Some make even longer journeys, taking several days to reach the city of Ranchi, where they can sell their coal at a premium.

Dinood's work is technically illegal because all the coal in India's soil is owned by the state. This leaves him open to frequent harassment by the authorities.

"We have to pay up to 50 rupees (Dh4) in bribes on each journey to police or other officials," he said, already pouring sweat as he contemplated the long hill in front of him.

"But sometimes the police beat us up just to show us their force. They let the air out of our tyres or bend the wheels. Sometimes they just steal the whole load of coal."

Thousands like him persist, however, driven by a lack of jobs and forming a huge network of informal employment that has grown up around the state's burgeoning mining industry.

Jharkhand is a major mineral source for India, accounting for 29 per cent of its total coal production and 28 per cent of its iron ore, along with many other minerals.

As mines have proliferated, so has criminality and corruption. A study in 2008 estimated the loss to the Jharkhand government and coal companies from illegal mining at the equivalent of Dh8.5 billion every year. It stated that 45,000 people are employed in illegal mining at around 150 frequently shifting sites, many of which are extremely hazardous.

"When a commercial company finishes using a mine, they fill it in with mud and clay and it is supposed to be left alone," said Rakesh Verma, a journalist with the Hindi-language newspaper Prabhat Khabar. "But local people immediately dig them up, and just keep digging and digging."

Mr Verma is based in Dhanbad, home to around a third of Jharkhand's 200 official mines. He pointed out a small illegal mine in the area that had collapsed a few days before, killing four villagers, including two women.

"When there's an accident like this, the locals run away with the bodies, so that there cannot be an investigation," Mr Verma said.

Much larger operations are controlled by organised criminal gangs, who can transport about 50 lorry loads - 20 tonnes - of coal every day out of Dhanbad district alone.

"Everyone is paid off - every level of police and local officials, even journalists," Mr Verma said. "Each lorry has to pay around 40,000 rupees in bribes but they still make around 25,000 rupees on the load when they reach a city like Varanasi."

Another part of the equation is the presence of Naxalite insurgents. Naxalites are self-professed Communist revolutionaries fighting for the rights of the poor. But, in Jharkhand, the wealth of financial opportunities from the mining industry has caused the movement to fragment into competing groups, many of them little more than criminal gangs that charge protection money from mining operations in the area, both legal and illegal. The police recently estimated that the leading Naxalite organisation, the Communist Party of India (Maoist), makes Dh260 million a year from Jharkhand alone.

"Jharkhand is the wallet of the Maoists," says Inspector General SN Pradhan, of Jharkhand Police Special Branch. "While the movement may have strong ideological roots in other parts of the country, here it has disintegrated into a battle for turf and money as petty criminals realise it is much easier to operate if they sign up as Maoists and gain the backing of an insurgent group."

The Jharkhand government's obsessive focus on mining as the driver of economic growth has displaced thousands of villagers but done little for local livelihoods. Agaria Tola is one of several new villages created when Central Coalfields Ltd established the Barej mine in Hazaribagh district in the mid-1990s.

"We were forced out by the police," said Jaiku Sen, a local villager, as his family sorted through nylon bags for the next day's coal carriers.

"They gave me 50,000 rupees for a new house, but now we have no land to grow crops. There is no work here, and people have many health problems because the mine has polluted the drinking water."

Local activists say that only about a quarter of the 290 families displaced received any compensation. Having been spread across several hundred acres, they now live in just eight acres.

Workers at a nearby charity health clinic in Kasiadhi village confirmed the effect on health conditions. "Since the mining has started, the water table has gone right down. There is only one well and the quality of the water is not good," said Philan Horo, who helps run the health centre. "Last year, we saw 65 cases of cholera."

A spokesman for Central Coalfields, a subsidiary of Coal India, which operates the Barej mine, said the company was unaware of any case in which compensation had not been paid. He added that the company carries out projects related to health in the area, including the establishment of a hospital in Hazaribagh district.