• March 28, 2014

Robb Kendrick: Life in India’s Coal Mines

Robb Kendrick

“Coal is a paradox. It’s a cheap and plentiful energy source that created and continues to power our modern world, yet our continued reliance on coal threatens the very world it helped create.

Coal powered the Industrial Revolution, and remains the leading energy source worldwide for generating electricity. And despite a recent decline in U.S. coal use, globally we burn more coal than ever.

But coal is dirty. Pollutants are released when we burn it, one of them carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas scientists see as a driver of rising global temperatures.

Photographer Robb Kendrick, who I first collaborated with during his 1985 summer internship here, persevered in the face of many refusals, locked doors, and barred gates to get this article’s powerful photography showing coal’s visible impacts.” –Dennis Dimick, photo editor for “Can Coal Ever Be Clean?” in the April issue of National Geographic.

These men unload a cart from a “rat hole” mine that is 400 feet underground and prepare to load a 2-ton bucket for removal to the surface.  Many of the mines in Meghalaya are not legal which means they are not engineered and very unsafe.  The coal has brought prosperity and jobs to the region but has caused tremendous environmental problems and human suffering, including child labor.
Meghalaya, India. Men unload a cart from a “rat hole” mine.
Coal is lifted out of the mine shaft two tons at a time and trucked to a depot, where it is sorted by size and quality.
Coal is lifted out of the mine shaft two tons at a time and trucked to a depot, where it is sorted by size and quality.

Being lowered 400 feet into an illegal mine is unsettling. You quickly realize how fragile your existence is. Everything around you is a wisp away from failure—rickety ladders descending into wet darkness, no escape route, no water pumps, no lighting, no ventilation systems, miners in flip flops and shorts lighting a cigarette in the dark while taking a break. One falling domino can bring the whole place down and with it, all those working inside. This is the reality of illegal mining in eastern India and for these miners, this is the norm.

Taking these risks every day, miners work 3-foot tall coal seams, called “rat holes.” While lying on their backs picking away at the coal, they dig 1000 feet horizontally in unsupported seams with nothing more than a headlight. Collapse of these rat hole mines is not uncommon and many quietly die in the process.

Meghalaya, India. A coal miner climbs a shaky ladder to daylight.  A 19th-century mine in  the U.S. or Europe might have looked just as hellish; mines there are safer now. But coal’s environmental costs have grown—and become global.
Meghalaya, India. A coal miner climbs a shaky ladder to daylight.

Endurance. That one word best describes the people I met in India. Whether an illegal miner working a rat hole 400 feet down, a child laborer loading 50-pound coal baskets into trucks, coal sorters in a coal depot, or women in the villages within a coal mine acting as the glue that keeps family and community together, they all showed tremendous endurance, graciousness, and kindness. No one was bitter, no one complained, no one asked anything of me.

Life is cut to such a basic level that properly cremating their dead was a burden, though this ceremony is a vital part of proceeding to the afterlife. One group of miners, living in a coal mine that has experienced underground fires for nearly a century, simply wrap the deceased in cloth and stuff the body down one of the many crevasses where the body will burn.

Jharkhand, India. Coal depots are very active places—receiving coal, separating grades, and breaking coal with small hammers. They are also places where generations of families can get stuck in a sad cycle.  These workers are some of the lowest paid in the business.  Separating and breaking coal in a depot gets you $2 USD per day.  This man along with his wife, daughter, son-in-law and one of his two grandsons all work in the depot. The five of them make $10 USD per 11-hour day.
Jharkhand, India. Separating and breaking coal in a depot gets you $2 USD per day. This man along with his wife, daughter, son-in-law, and one of his two grandsons all work in the depot. The five of them make $10 USD per 11-hour day.

I met an older couple working a coal depot in Jharkhand. The man, in his 60’s, was breaking coal with a small hammer while his wife shoveled broken coal. After 30 minutes of making images and showing them the results I came to learn that the young boy sitting next to him was his grandson. His daughter, son-in-law and two grandsons were all living and working in the coal depot. For me this was a powerful moment, not because the image was powerful, but because of the pain I felt for this man who was doing what he could to support his family and having it come to this thin existence—three generations living in plastic covered structures with dirt floors, no toilet, no water, and hammering and shoveling coal into piles.

Working in teams, men and women load baskets of coal onto trucks that are waiting to carry it to coal depots or clients throughout India. The use of people for this work is just one example of the human sacrifice that happens in the coal industry of less-developed countries where labor is cheaper than machines.
Working in teams, men and women load baskets of coal onto trucks that are waiting to carry it to coal depots or clients throughout India.
At Bokapahari mine in Jharkhand men and women load coal trucks by hand.  The landscape is riddled with open cuts belching smoke where the fire has cracked the earth open.
Jharkhand, India. At a mine in the village of Bokapahari, men and women load coal trucks by hand.

Circumstance, something beyond our control, plays a huge role in all our lives. For these miners and their families, these jobs pay enough to risk their lives. We Americans, even the poorest of us, are born into a circumstance of such comparative excess and comfort, I’m sure few of us could endure these same conditions. It’s not that we are less durable, maybe just mentally more fragile.

It is ironic that many of those risking their health and lives to provide coal in India do not have electricity. In fact they have very little that would qualify as a basic necessity. These remote mines insure that most Indians never see the unsafe, deplorable conditions these people live and work in. They do not see the lives that are considered necessary and in the same breath disposable.

Families living near the Jharia mine mainly work for the coal company.  The women break coal into small pieces and cook in a fire to make “charred coal” for use as heating and cooking fuel as well as additional income with any extra that is made.  Existence in these villages is rough.  No running water, toiletss and in many cases dirt floors.  Also, there is no area suitable for a garden.
Jharkhand, India. Families living near the Jharia mine mainly work for the coal company. Existence in these villages is rough, and no area suitable for a garden.
Jharkhand, India. A young boy carries  a chunk of coal into the mining camp where he lives. His family will burn the coal to make coke—a cleaner and hotter-burning fuel—which they’ll either sell or use themselves for heating and cooking.
Jharkhand, India. A young boy carries a chunk of coal into the mining camp where he lives.

Working on assignment, I want to be open to consider new information and experiences for what they are—to not judge with my American perspective—and accept many things as OK. I found it impossible to say “This is OK” while in India’s coal country. I’ve worked in India for 22 years and I’ve seen a lot of poverty but always the people were safe, clean, and lived reasonably. This time was different.

Jharkhand. India. A coal miner tends a fire in the mining camp where he lives with his family.
Jharkhand, India. A coal miner tends a fire in the mining camp where he lives with his family.

Human suffering happens in many places. This situation is not unique, but entire communities being pushed down so far to provide something that comforts some just seems grotesque. It would be like a farmer growing food for others while seeing his own family face hunger. The hope is that images such as these may inform and start a conversation that will lead to small changes, and eventually larger ones, for the betterment of those who experience these hardships.

Today, March 28 at 12:30 p.m. ET, join us for a live Twitter chat about environmental science with Michelle Nijhuis, author of the “Can Coal Ever Be Clean?” feature, and Dennis Dimick, executive editor of National Geographic magazine. Follow Michelle, Dennis, and @NatGeoLive on Twitter and tweet your questions with #NatGeoLive.

Robb Kendrick’s photographs showing the visible impact of coal appear in the April issue of National Geographic. Follow Kendrick on his website.

There are 39 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. JV
    October 7, 2014

    When I first moved to Jamshedpur, Jharkhand, I saw people use a mixture of coal and sand to cook. That was the first time I had seen it in India. elsewhere I saw wood or kerosene. Then I got curious, I asked where they got coal from. Until I had not seen a single shop which sold coal. People said we get it its sold. Digger a little deeper found about the existence of illegal coal. Unlike illegal kerosene it was very cheap. It triggered another question about how was it so cheap. Then on further reading found that many communities exist by mining coal mines rendered unsafe by the Govt of India. They are paid when they bring the coal out based on the amount brought out and not on the hours worked. If someone doesnt come back nobody cares to find them. There are very few things which brook such levels of desperation. As a society, we should take steps to remedy this. As an individual I do not know what is to be done. I sure hope somebody does.

  2. Abhishek
    September 2, 2014

    I come from the same place. My father works in Coal India for past 40 years. And I can tell you guys the situation is much worse than this. However, my father works in Finance department, so he rarely goes to Coal mines as shown in the pictures. I have spent my 20 years in Dhanbad and I have seen family dying out of hunger. I must tell you need real strength to survive in the dust and misery laiden air of Dhanbad. I am lucky that I have seen the worse, now everything seems so easy. Thanks for sharing this pictures. Touched

  3. hebintn
    April 29, 2014

    The US could be a leader in non-fossil fuel transition and could end this assault on humanity, but we choose not to.

  4. G Fletcher
    April 15, 2014

    When I see these photos and read the text indicating the hardships they endure, I am angry and the exploitation and abuse of the world’s asylum system by tertiary educated individuals from second-tier economies seeking migration by claiming (and illegally) using the UN convention. Russian, Iranian, Serbian, Middle-Eastern and North African graduates now dominate the system in Western Europe, Canada, Australia and other receiving countries. They claim political, religious or sexual persecution, but few are genuine converts/activists/homosexuals. As a consequence, impoverished individuals cannot gain entry for humanitarian reasons as migrants. Yet the UNHCR (with the exception of mandated refugees from war-torn countries) allows it to happen….

  5. Kumar Gaurav
    April 9, 2014

    These moments have correctly been captured and I must say the conditions have long been pretty much same and little has been done by media or govt to help these people get better off. The pictures are really poignant and should be able to get the pity across the India and help raise a voice against this sordid life these deprived people going through. Paradoxically, the abundant and valuable resource doing more harm than good.

    April 9, 2014

    Great Job, indeed. Thank you. I am a mining engineer (working at Dhanbad, the coal capital of India) in Jharkhand state of India. Conditions have improved. But, there are still some cases of Illegal mining. Families are forced to do these jobs because unemployment is a big issue in India. Coal is mainly found in remote areas, some of them still lack very basic necessities like drinking water, schools and hospitals. Large fraction of this population suffers from respiratory diseases. Beneath their colony, Carbon of coal burns slowly due to spontaneous combustion after coming in contact with oxygen reaching through the small tunnels made during illegal mining. Today, “Spontaneous heating and land subsidence” is a big problem in these areas. Companies have paid the land acquisition compensation but local people are not moving away simply because lack of employment opportunities. Here, by selling small amount of stolen coal to hotels, tea stalls, at least they earn enough to feed their families. Hygiene, standard of living are luxury words which come only after assurance of survival. Everyday, there is struggle for existence.

  7. soufiene
    April 4, 2014


  8. Bianca
    April 3, 2014

    Feeling as though I’ve always been just an average person, I know now not to take my luxuries for granted. Being underage, I am gratified that I am not required to have worked at such a young age. It’s true, we do live in rest and comfort, even if we’re poor.

  9. Christina Hwang
    April 3, 2014

    Are you sure about what you have said?I am volunteer for a dust lung assistance group, which gives help to people who get pneumoconiosis, but uncompensated and untreated. The majority of the most desperate patients are mining workers from Chinese Northwest private mines. The reason why these people are not given occupational safety measures and are not compensated is that these mines are illegal and run by scoundrels associated with the government! I have seen tragedies like this almost every day and our organisations have had a long, extremely hard fight with these greedy mine owners and the government!

  10. NM
    April 1, 2014

    Incredible India and its incredible humans rights abuses. Just because they need jobs. smh

  11. Juliana Caushi
    April 1, 2014

    This reminds me workers of the coal mine in Bulqiza, Albania. Same working conditions and a misery life. People die there every month because of landslides in galleries and their salary is just ridiculous . The scary part of all this are children. They still don’t understand that their lives are in danger. But they who do understand this never care about kids. Money are what they love the most. This shows only the dark side of the place we live in.

  12. Abraham
    March 31, 2014

    Indian markets raised 1200 million rupees in the initial public issue of the coal blocks.

  13. Manolis Michael
    March 31, 2014

    instance for all of us who does not please with what we have PROPERTY

  14. Sudhakar Wani
    March 30, 2014

    Whereas hard work earns for the coal mine worker what we see through these photographs , people earning hundreds of crores in lifetime is unimaginable. Unless basic needs of entire humanity are addressed no body has a right to earn that filthy money. Mechanisation in mines will rid the workers of their misery. The ever growing greed of industrialist is responsible for this state of affairs.

  15. Peter Cleary
    March 30, 2014

    Again stunned by the hidden reality of what the global economy means to some on the bottom. For those of us who live safely away in prosperous havens to recognise that we are still connected to those on the baseline of existence. Coal, power generation and the making of stuff. Then the distribution of resources with some sort of equity and fairness. What small steps can be made by these people we see in the photos and then each person along the chain of production until it reaches us, the consumer of cheap good from India and other places. How to reconcile the entrepreneurial efforts of multinational steel companies of Jharkhand with those that struggle for some small social and workers rights and then the idealists and political fabricators who stand in between. Some focus please on history of these people whose situation has not been created by accident but by intent and decision making by officials innocent/ nieve and those culpable all teh way along the line. The story tellers like Robb, more please. Read too ‘Dust on the Road’ – Mahasweta Devi and many more

  16. gerald
    March 30, 2014

    we come in this world nothing,now we lived this world without nothing, make urself a reason for others to be happy, maybe ur not exist anymore but ur memory makes u alive.

  17. liberty
    March 30, 2014

    In the bible written what u can do to my less fortunate son u do it also to me. if almighty god father gave his only son to us died in the cross to redeem from our original sin, we as a person what we can offer to other.

  18. tim dyson
    March 30, 2014

    Reality is always beautiful: man struggling to survive in a hell on earth. No time for joy nor for a child’s dream. It’s a shame more Americans are not able to fathom the world of the less fortunate. Thanks for these pictures and for the outstanding writing.

  19. Robert Berger
    March 30, 2014

    Well it will never change even in 200 years. The rich people in India are to powerful and no election will change that.. India is protected by the word “biggest democracy” With money any election can be won.

  20. Dania
    March 29, 2014

    Amazing photos brought to life. I only wish this wasn’t the reality of today.

  21. ricky
    March 29, 2014

    This is how they live for survival, no standard that will set forth to work safely and efficiently. What a frustrating area to work with as what you’ve said for them it is only a “norm”. I am currently in a coal mining company and I’m lucky that we are complying a healthy work place standard. We go beyond what is better for the employees, everything is governed by ISO law and policies. Hope this will be given as soonest into this workplace.

  22. Jeannette Ralston
    March 29, 2014

    What powerful photos, Robb! These are scenes that should be engraved into our conscience. The eyes of the boy carrying the lump of coal will haunt me. What a great pictorial statement!

  23. George Tubei
    March 29, 2014

    the power of photography!

  24. Josh Earl
    March 29, 2014

    This really does make you appreciate the job you have and the place where you live.

  25. shouquan
    March 29, 2014

    Thank you for sharing these heart touching photos.I am from china,as i known,many years ago,there existed the same scene,which was called black coal mining.I think all of us want to question that what lead to such scenes? I think poverty is the first reason,many people from the undeveloped area have to do such work to support his or her family,just for life.Secondly,the law of local area is imperfect,the children were supposed to be in school for reciving education,but they were forced to work ,it’s the wrong of government .In china,several years ago ,some black coal mining who employed child labourer were exposured by TV and other medias,the government make relative law to forbid the child labourner,and all those coal companies were violated by law.From then on ,the situation got much better, and now we can’t find such black coal minings.

  26. raul manuel cancela
    March 29, 2014

    Great work! In my opinion, you realized an excellent portrait of the human cruelty. I congratulate you sincerely.

  27. Willy
    March 29, 2014

    A very touching story and photos. I truly hope evolution will give us time to correct our mistakes before we are over and out.

  28. moise
    March 29, 2014

    no comment

  29. kaveral
    March 29, 2014

    India as a country seems to place little value on safety and standards.

  30. Sandipan Majumdar
    March 29, 2014

    Fantastic, a good job!

  31. willsmithpaul
    March 28, 2014

    salute them…………….i wish the part of India will progress with future…….

  32. Daniel E. Wright
    March 28, 2014

    The only thing that would help these people/humans, would be to sterilize their (women/ladies) to give them some kind of dignity, because they, being humans like me, after a hard day in the mine, would be to be comforted, by my wife/girlfriend/close friend/ or God Forbid my sister, and we all know, what comforting leads to. So they, I think don’t really want to bring another of their loved ones into this situation, but really, what are supposed to do? I can’t see any of them being celibate, when they probably, don’t have a word like that in their vocabulary. I think it is the only way out. Now, before you get the ropes——-out to hang me, quietly listen, to the rest of the story. I am a, Spartan man, some 65 years young, and are getting a little philosophical, in my old age. I have told friends, in “my” intellectual circle, that if I, somehow would have been shown a movie, of my life, when I was 1 minute old, and had the ability, to understand the play, and I had an, ability to chose to play the part, or go back to sleep, I would have said : “Nighty Night” ! So enough said about that. I am just saying that just because two people make love to each other, and they preform the sex act, an unintentionally, bring another one of, us/you/me, into a life of very fine things, or to live out your days in a coal mine. I am very anxious to read any comments, on my comment, all are welcome, Good, Bad, and totally, indefectible, and definitely, indelicate. Thanks for reading. Your servant, Dan Wright

  33. Melissa Brooks
    March 28, 2014

    Thank you for this amazing story I will definitely pass it on.

  34. S.H.Raza
    March 28, 2014

    Only a person with emotional intelligence and technical competence can achieve this kind of visuals. The young boy carrying a large chunk of a coal twice the size of his own head is very touching. I am from India and we see this kind of child labor in day to day life…
    Hope there is a CHANGE and these children spend time in schools and playground, instead of mines and quarries.
    Thanks Robb, for such a heart touching visual essay…

  35. Susan
    March 28, 2014

    My family is from the coal mining region of PA. MY grandmother told me stories of her coal mining father and brothers. The coal company own the house and they obtained all their food from the company store. Hundreds of men and boys were killed in the mines.

  36. holly
    March 28, 2014

    Thank you for sharing these powerful images and your words and thoughts behind these images.

  37. linh
    March 28, 2014

    We often forget quickly after seeing these pictures, but the hardships these people endure don’t change. As citizens of the world, we must make some real efforts to create change for our fellow citizens in different parts of the world. I hope these pictures and stories are told more in a variety of media outlets instead of the ridiculous stories of celebrities that are recycle 24/7.

  38. Canice Garth
    March 28, 2014

    Thank you for this huge piece of work. Hopefully your witnessing this so difficult reality,will bring about life changing awareness of this long suffering of such a kind and gentle people of our planet.

  39. Catherine McIntosh
    March 28, 2014

    Your powerful photos bring a hidden reality into view for the world to see. May this lead toward change.

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