National Situation

Report from Dhanbad Coal Fields

Following report was written after a two weeks visit in Dhanbad-Jharia, one of the main coal mining areas in India. Seeing the area and talking to the coal-mining comrades of the Revolutionary Socialist Party (Marxist-Leninist) was insightful and inspired us to dig a bit deeper into the historical material of Dhanbad-Jharia. From the past and present of this area we can raise important general questions for the wider political debate about capitalist development, re-composition of the working class and the state regime:

Coal Miners in India
  • Jharia coal fields are a rural industrial area. Debates and research about the formation of the working class tend to focus on urban industries and ‘slum cities’, while quantitatively, at least in the global South, rural industries keep on being an important sphere in the process of proletarianisation. Around 70 per cent of the population in India might still live in rural areas, but only a small minority survives as peasants. The step into urban areas is still a big step, too big for many landless, therefore a large share of proletarians in the country-side make their first industrial experiences in the rural areas themselves. Coal mining in the Dhanbad-Jharia area started on a significant scale in the early 19th century and formed a base for the development of the early working-class generations in India.
  • There was and still is a particular importance of the product coal itself, as an energy resource needed for industrial development – currently the regime in India sources around 60 per cent of it’s total energy from coal and has become the third largest coal producer globally. Total coal production has increased nearly sevenfold between 1980 and 2010 and India’s coal imports increased during recent years. Instead of ‘being plundered by imperialism’ India-based steel companies increasingly invest in mines in Australia, the US and Africa. But India’s energy regime is squeezed: after the nuclear disaster in Japan in early 2011 the path towards nuclear energy is contested, protest against the construction of reactors is gathering strength [1]. India has to import most of its oil and gas – a difficult source given the inflated trade deficit and shell-shocked global oil prices. On the background of this squeeze, coal mining seems a bad, but the only stable option for the near future.
  • Capitalist development depends not on the mere availability of a specific energy resource, but also on its (preferably low) price for generally profitable conditions. The global crisis from the mid-1960s onwards pushed the Indian regime into nationalisation of the mining industry in order to centralise the command over productivity – the state of Emergency was the political ‘repressive’ side of re-structuring. By the end of the 1980s the mechanisation drive in the India mining industry crashed into the contradiction of capitalist productivity: output productivity increased, but production costs per ton did not come down enough. The debt crisis from the 1990 onwards focused the attack on labour costs again: casualisation and outsourcing of mines. Since the 2000s the ‘commodity price bubble’ increased the importance of mining beyond the immediate profits from production. In India the mining areas are increasingly militarised – the 100,000 para-military forces of ‘Operation Greenhunt’ are part of the investment regime. Current steps to privatise the world’s biggest coal mining company Coal India Limited – by launching a record initial public offering raising 3.5 billion USD in late 2010 – has also to be seen as an desperate attempt to deal with the rapidly increasing state debts in a global crisis.
  • Report from a visit to coal fields in DhanbadBoth output and low price depends on the control over the undesired by-product of coal mining: the control over a large mass of potentially unruly industrial workers. In the mining areas re-composition of the working class through migration, ‘uneven development’ and technological attacks is a constant process. We can see in a very concentrated local space and time struggles ‘within a proletariat’ which represent the main lines of segmentation of the global working class today. The proletariat in Dhanbad has many faces: the pauperised Adivasi (‘indigenous’) and ‘rural poor’ population at the fringes of the mining areas – main base for the Maoist armed insurrection; the village workers in the ‘illegal mines’; the casualised workers in the main mines earning ten per cent of their permanent work-mates; the unemployed sons and daughters of local peasants and permanent workers, organised in an ‘unemployed movement’. As a whole the local work-force is under-layered by various waves of migration since the 19th century.
  • This peculiar composition of the local work-force and industry brought about very specific forms of ‘mediation’ of class struggle. Dhanbad became infamous for its ‘mafia’, a particular network which ‘organised’ the reproduction of the working-class through money-lending and labour contracting; which reproduced itself materially as transport contractors, by illegal mining and later on real estate deals; which provided the Coal India management with both gangs of strike-breaking thugs and large integrative trade union organisations; and developed strong links with the political class. The ‘mafia-mode of production’ was not an irregularity, but a kind of complementary department, outsourced by the nationalised industry. The trade union / mafia connection in Dhanbad was historically and essentially paralleled, e.g. by the regime of Boyles United Mining Workers in the US of the 1960s and 1970s. By the 1990s the liquid force of neoliberal policies dissolved the mafia into ‘normal business’.
  • Parallel to, and over the time increasingly intertwined with the ‘mafia’, a ‘regionalist liberation movement’ developed, demanding a Jharkhand state independent from Bihar – the Dhanbad-Jharia mining area used to form part of southern Bihar. The Jharkhand movement first tried to mobilise the impoverished Adivasi population against ‘the outsiders’, but fairly quickly included non-Adivasi ‘Jharkhandis’, who had come to the area in the early 20th century and had developed ‘local economic’ interests in a separate state. After nationalisation around 50,000 mainly ‘local’ mining workers were replaced by ‘outsiders’ within the space of weeks; this gave material back-up for the regionalism, last but not least within segments of the working class. The emerging Maoist-influenced movement, e.g. in form of the Marxist Coordination Committee (MCC), provided the regionalist movement with an ideology of ‘anti-feudal class alliance’, later on the subaltern discourse of ‘indigenous identity’ helped to integrate segments of the proletariat into the ‘state project’.
  • The ‘regionalist project’ seems discarded since the formation of Jharkhand state in November 2000 and its unaltered repression and displacement of the ‘Jharkhandi’ proletariat. Today the working class in the Dhanbad-Jharia area has to discover and re-compose itself through its own activity. The class conflicts in the area are relentless; they reach from strikes in the mines, to piquetero-type blockading actions of the unemployed, to protests and riots against displacement and environmental damage, attacks on mining infrastructure. The questions raised by these fragmented local struggles – united by the mines and mining work – are global questions.

Coal Mining in India

We want to give a brief overview on the current scope of coal mining and consumption in India [2].

Coal mining in IndiaIn 2009, India (526 million tonnes) was the third biggest hard coal producer after China (2,971 Mt) and the USA (919Mt). 85 per cent of coal is produced by Coal India Limited (CIL), the world largest coal mining company, currently employing around 380,000 permanent workers and running around 500 mines in India.

Around 55 per cent of energy production in India stems from coal, compared to around 3 per cent from nuclear energy. Around 75 per cent of total coal stock is consumed by the energy sector. Global market prices for coking coal increased by 70 per cent during 2010 – the regime in India is forced to import coal for energy production and at the same time put more pressure on production costs ‘at home’.

Production costs in India are 35 per cent higher compared to Australia, Indonesia or South Africa, which is not due to higher wages, but lower out-put productivity. The Coal India Ltd. subsidiary SCCL claimed in 2010 that wage costs account for 44 per cent of total production costs. The average mechanised mine in India had an out-put of 3.8 tons per man-shift in 2008, while manual mines operate on levels of 0.4 tonnes. In comparison, the United Colliery in Australia reports to achieve an output per man shift of 65 tonnes. In order to increase productivity there is a shift towards large scale open pit mining. In 2005 around 80 per cent of coal production in India came from open-cast mining, this compares to 20 per cent in 1971. The underground production declined from 50.56 to 43.54 million tonnes during the period 2001 to 2008.

The imports of coal increased rapidly over the last three years, from 59 million tonnes in 2008-9 to 73 million tonnes in 2009-10 to 84 million tonnes in 2010-11. There is also a significant increase in direct investment of steel manufacturing companies from India in coal mining companies in the US, Africa and Australia, while CIL in turn outsources whole open-cast mines to international companies and companies previously only engaged in transport and logistics.

Total coal production in India

30 Mt
72 Mt
89 Mt
200 Mt (by Coal India Limited alone)
345 Mt (by Coal India Limited alone)
526 Mt (out of which 430 Mt by Coal India Limited)

Estimated official work-force before nationalisation


Permanent workers at CIL


The Dhanbad Jharia Coal Mining Area

Dhanbad coal fields are situated in the state of Jharkhand in the East of India, neighbouring West Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. The Dhanbad-Jharia area forms part of a mineral rich corridor, most of India’s reserves in coal, copper, iron ore and uranium are located in the Durgapur-Dhanbad-Bokaro-Jamshedpur triangle. Industrial coal mining started in the second half of the 19th century, subsequently both steel manufacturing and power generation came up in the region. Bokaro is known as India’s steel city, location of India’s biggest steel plant, and currently major investment hub for ArcelorMittal and other multinationals. The steel industry attracted manufacturing industries. After having set-up their steel plant in 1907, Tata opened their truck plant in Jamshedpur in 1945 [3]. In 1952 Nehru opened the Sidri fertilizer plant, which he called ‘temple of development’ and which became the symbol of ‘independent’ India’s industrial 5-years plan regime and cornerstone of the Green Revolution [4]. Up to the early 1980s around one fifth of India’s total public infrastructure and industrial investment went to this ‘Ruhr Area’ of India. The mining and industrial clusters are surrounded by agriculturally backward and jungle-dominated areas. The ‘local’ population in these areas belong to the poorest rural sections in India. They have become important bases for the Maoist armed struggle.

The Dhanbad-Jharia coal fields form part of this heavy industrial triangle. They are a rural mining area, with about 110 official coal mines and probably the same amount of unofficial mines. They are India’s main centre for coking coal, a particular sort of coal important for steel production. Scattered in the region are the vast open-cast mines, interspersed with villages and miners colonies. Trucks loaded with coal and heavy machinery dominate the scenery, interrupted by push-carts and bicycles – loaded with coal. The Dhanbad-Jharia region is said to be one of the most polluted areas of the world. Mining in itself is a rather forceful intervention in the environment, but capitalist social relations have resulted in forms of mining, which aggravate the attack on nature and, as part of it, on the human bodies. The productivity drive towards open-cast mining has increased the dust production, the whole area is covered with fine coal dust, causing epidemic respiratory suffering. In order to cut costs, many mines – and not only the unofficial mines – are not re-filled with sand, once the coal is extracted. This results in gas accumulation, underground explosions, underground fires and caving in of whole areas. Since years a large-scale underground fire burns under the surface of Jharia, under the living area of about 600,000 people. [5] Here and there the earth cracks open, gas, smoke and flames emerge. Skeletons of trees, burnt from within. Jharia was declared eviction area in the early 1980s, an official master-plan was set-up to re-located hundred of thousands of residents, but was either not put into place or displaced people were not given compensation – which increased the resistance of people towards being displaced, be it for mining or for ‘their own safety’ in order to escape the underground flames.

Map of Dhanbad - Jharia coal mining area
The industry destroys nature and harms humans – and it creates a different social environment. The industry brings together thousands of people from all corners of Northern India, they live in village-type of settlements, but without the traditional village hierarchies of caste, individual land-ownership and agricultural dependency. Neither is the social atmosphere polluted by the urban stress and feeling of anonymity. One of the major divisions and tragic separation which capitalist development creates is the division into town and village. The town offers a break-away from the misery and cultural oppressiveness of the village, but this urban freedom turns out to be a mirage, hiding stress, lack of breathing-space and social coldness. There seems to be no alternative to this quasi natural dichotomy and the communist trajectory to abolish both village and town seems utopian. The Dhanbad-Jharia coal-fields are everything but a utopia, but they demonstrate that there is a material link between form of community and social activity; that because of the mining work the atmosphere in the villages is more intimate than in a town and more egalitarian than in a traditional agricultural village; that there is the potential of an alternative. Manual workers, degraded and trapped by centuries of caste-based division of labour and still largely culturally oppressed are praised by heroic monuments in the mining region. The acknowledgment of working class’ social power is petrified in the miner’s statues, which can be seen in many squares of Dhanbad area. At the same time we can see the looming nightmare once mining capital would leave the area as the main social cohesive and source of income – yet another desolate place of stranded individuals. The question will be whether we manage to turn the current, destructive form of industrial socialisation into something better.

The atmosphere within the mining village is one of relative equality – if we ignore the structural gender inequalities, also imposed by the ban of female employment in the official mines. But between the mining villages themselves are significant differences, reflecting the hierarchies within the mining work-force. This becomes visible in the Bhuli colony, which was built by the Coal India in the mid-1970s, after nationalisation. It was the biggest industrial housing scheme in Asia at the time, comprising schools, hospitals and other ‘planned infrastructure’ for the about 40,000 mine-working residents – while appealing to their rural background by leaving some space for gardening and animal husbandry. If we compare this housing scheme with the current conditions, where a well-planned Industrial Model Town would feature all kinds of access roads and industrial infrastructure, but no provision for workers’ accommodation what-so-ever, Bhuli seems like a proof for the ‘worker-friendly’ character of the nationalisation of mining industry. These company colonies seem the ‘role-model’ of a welfare-type of capitalism-socialism. But more than that Bhuli is an expression of spacial separation within a divided work-force. During the first weeks of nationalisation around 50,000 to 60,000 mainly local workers – some people stress the fact that a lot of them were Dalits (untouchables) and Santhals (tribals) – were replaced by better paid ‘permanent workers’, who mainly came from other regions of Bihar and who were accommodated – and separated – in townships like Bhuli. Today Bhuli or Munidih Project, like many other ‘colonies’ of permanent workers of Coal India, look rather run-down. The three-room family houses with separate gardens are rented to the workers for about 150 Rs a month (they earn about 1,000 Rs a day), but they officially have to be returned when workers retire. No worker has been made permanent since the early 1990s, in Munidih Project colony around 25 per cent of the houses are empty. There are constant struggles of both company and administration against ‘illegal squatters’. Nowadays the majority of mining workers are hired through contractor or work in unofficial mines. They live in the villages surrounding the mines, some of them are still referred to as ‘tribal villages’. They lack the infrastructure of the colonies, they are even more threatened by displacement, but they are ‘mining villages’ in the sense that their economic and social daily life evolves around the mines, either by direct employment or related services.

The Coal Mining sector during Colonialism and after "Independence"

In the following we have at the historical development of the mining industry and workers’ struggle in the area – from the 'Colonial Times' to 'Independence' after 1945 and nationalisation of the mining industry in 1971-3. On this background we then focus on the re-structuring process which took place since then: through 'mafia mode of production', mechanisation and casualisation.

Colonial Times

In the Dhanbad area, mining activities on an industrial level started by the mid-19th century. Before that village population engaged in small-scale mining, but mining became industrialised only with the colonial extraction efforts to connect the main trading and manufacturing centres with the ports via rail-ways. Mines were mainly ‘privately-owned’, although factions within the colonial regime proposed nationalisation. Early on the mining industry developed a separation into large mines, often employing over a thousand people, and small mines operated by less than 100 workers. This dualism persisted over time.

Around the 1910s larger mines and mining workers started to get exploited by ‘Indian’ owners, mainly coming from Gujarat and from the Railway contracting sector. Tata opened mines in Dhanbad in 1910 in order to supply their steel plant in Jamshedpur. Already earlier on, by 1870s a ‘national bourgeoisie’ had developed in the textile sectors, benefiting from the global crisis, which had hit the industry in England. With some decades delay, ‘Indian’ mine owners started to develop links with the emerging Nationalist movement, in addition to their collaboration with the colonial regime.

Salgado Dhanbad India 1989
In 1920 around 100,000 people were employed in the official mines in Dhanbad area, this figure rose to 150,000 during the Second World War and stayed at around 130,000 till the 1970s. The composition of this work-force changed drastically over time. Initially local population, mainly ‘tribals’, were employed as ‘family gangs’ on piece-work system. From the 1910s onwards workers arrived from as far as Gurakhpur, Patna, Allahabad and even from the Punjab. They clearly outnumbered the ‘local’ workers by the 1950s. The other main shift concerned the gender composition. Women mining workers accounted for nearly half of the work-force during the early phase of mining. In 1938 female employment in mines got officially banned, but the regime continued to depend on the female work-force due the increased demand for coal during the World War period. After ‘Independence’ female workers were expelled from the main mines and pushed into the unofficial mining fringe.

The re-placement of ‘local’ workers by migrant workers was part of the mine owners’ effort to enforce a higher degree of work discipline. Local mining workers tend to work until their ‘financial needs’ were met and then stop for a while, either working on their fields or engage in other activities. Chief Inspector of mines’ annual report noted in 1904: Even in normal time the Dehatis would not work regularly. Some of them worked for six or seven days at a stretch and then returned to their home for a week and rest. The migrant workers had more difficulties to escape the work regime. The other main measure to enforce regular and extended working-times was the electrification, which took place in the bigger mines from the 1920s onwards. Electrical pumps were used in order to be able to continue work during the raining season and electrical lights facilitated longer working hours in the open-cast mines. [6]

An ‘official’ labour movement amongst the Dhanbad miners appeared during the upsurge of workers struggles all over India after the First World War, a second wave of disputes surged in the period 1938 to 1941 and then again after the Second World War up to 1948. In that sense the local struggles followed a very generalised global rhythm. The official unions remained integrated either within the tactical ‘class collaboration’ of the Nationalist movement or degenerated into company unions. In late 1921, the Jharia Trade Union Congress called for strike and the bigger collieries were practically shut down for a week. A strike occurred in the Giridih coalfield in January 1923, but the workers returned unconditionally within a fortnight. The only trade union found to be in existence in the coal industry at the end of the 1920s was the Indian Colliery Employees’ Association, but this association had only 2,000 members. The leadership of this union was in the hands of those who were part of the supervising staff.

In 1938 strikes took place at Bird and Co’s Katrasgarh collieries. It lasted for about three months and affected about 7,000 workers. This time labour protests were accompanied by formation of trade unions. At the end of the 1930s, three registered trade unions were found to operate in the Jharia coalfield – the Indian Colliery Labour Union, the Tata’s Collieries Labour Association and the Indian Miners’ Association. Their numbers of members were around 3,500 respectively. This cycle of struggle was interrupted by the intensification of the Second World War and the Nationalist (Congress) backing of the Allies – the backing of the imperial British state. Coal was essential for the Allied war production, so Congress dominated trade unions were held back from any action threatening to interrupt coal supply.

In sync with mining workers in the US and South Africa and the wider Indian working class unrest, struggles re-emerged from the abyss of the World War and rocked almost entire coalfield during 1945-48, mainly relating to the sharp general price increases. In Bhowra and Amlabad colliery production stopped for around three months and thirteen days in 1948. The ‘independent’ state reacted with both, repression of struggles and legal integration of the official labour movement, e.g. by passing the Factory Act in 1948, which guaranteed the ‘right’ to formal representation, and by setting up the First Pay Commission. [7]


Similar to other industries under the colonial regime, mining as well was characterised by low level of productive investment except in a few central mines and in times of increased demand. In 1951, the regime in ‘independent’ India faced following situation: Around 70 per cent of all mines did not use electrical power; only around 18 per cent of the underground mines operated coal cutting machines and less than 1 per cent of the coal was mechanically loaded. During the following two decades of five years plans the state had to centralise command over coal production: a World Bank loan was used during the Third Plan to push investment in 225 central, formally still private mines. The ‘developmental gap’ between the main mines and the smaller, but quantitatively dominating mines widened.

Between 1951 and 1971 the number of coal cutting machines went up by 118.9 per cent; mechanical loaders and conveyors by 537.5 and 1257.0 per cent, respectively – having started from a very low level. Mechanically cut coal accounted for 32.4 of the underground output in 1971, having increased at an average annual rate of 13.5 per cent. Mechanical loading increased to 2.7 per cent. Output levels rose from around 30 Mt after the Second World War to about 72 Mt in 1971, while official employment increased from about 350,000 in 1951 to a peak-level of 450,000 in 1963. With the onset of the crisis by the mid-1960s employment dropped to around 380,000 in 1971.

Together with the central economic plans, large-scale credits and state-controlled coal prices, institutions like the central pay commissions were set-up and the Congress state-party affiliated trade union INTUC was put in high-command over the representation of the mining work-force – which included physical attacks on any other forms of workers’ organisation which might have threatened the trinity of state-management-union [8]. The state in India had guaranteed price levels for coal, both for producers and industrial consumers, in the hope that stable prices would lead to more investment in the still private mines and relatively cheap energy provisions would boost the wider industrial sector.

The Period 1971 - 2011: A short summary

The mining and energy regime in India was pushed through various phases of re-structuring in the rhythm with the general cycle of capitalist development and crisis. The industrial crisis from the mid-1960s onwards and particularly the oil-shock and global inflation in 1973 pushed many developing capitalist nations into dictatorial policies towards the working class, not at last towards workers in the energy sector. In India this ‘crisis-regime’ took the form of nationalisation of the mining sector in the early 1970s and the state of Emergency from 1975 to 1977. The ‘state of Emergency’ in 1975 nationalised banks and introduced a severe regime of central planning of proletarian re-production (e.g. through enforced mass-sterilisation), at the same time it ‘opened’ the Indian economy further to the world market and relieved big ‘private’ capital from taxes and custom duties: it ‘liberalised’ the economy. The 1980s in India were characterised by a ‘stuck development’. In the mining industry this ‘stuck development’ was best expressed in the emergence of the Munidih Project in Dhanbad, Asian’s first fully mechanised mine, in combination with a general degeneration of Coal India’s profitability. The 1980s culminated in the state foreign debt crisis in 1991, which widened the attack on the working class by debt management and controlled application of market forces in order to lower wage levels. In the mining areas of Dhanbad no worker was hired on a permanent bases since 1992 and the outsourcing process of mines accelerated. Each push of re-structuring was managed by a combination of World Bank or other external loans and a re-adjustment of the legal frame-work. In each phase the regime tried to make use of both the pressure of ‘market-forces’ and the centralising command of burocracy and ‘plan’.

Coal minersIn the following sections we first locate the ‘NATIONALISATION’ within the crisis attack on the working class. We then see how the ‘nationalisation’ of the central mines solidified the ‘uneven development’ within the mining sector in legal terms: the law drew a sharper line between the official and the ‘ILLEGALISED MINING SECTOR’, while the actual production process integrated both. The merger of trade union collaboration and ‘illegalised economic sector’ created the back-bone of the DHANBAD MAFIA. The mafia was intrinsic part of the mining regime during the 1970s to 1990s. The specific composition of the (local/migrant) mining work-force can partly explain the populist success of the JHARKHAND MOVEMENT, the other main form of class collaboration in the Dhanbad mining area. While mafia and regionalism controlled the reproduction of the impoverished rural proletariat and the labour intensive mines, MECHANISATION in the central mines attacked the core work-force and at the same time deepened the separation between workers in the centre and the periphery of the mining industry. The crisis 1991 the re-focussed the attack on the labour costs through CASUALISATION and OUTSOURCING.

The Nationalisation: 1971 - 1973

Formally the coking coal collieries – main source for steel production – were nationalised in 1971, and the non-coking ones in 1973. Subsequently, all coking and non-coking collieries were merged into the Coal India Ltd. (CIL) on 1st of November 1975. [9]

First of all, the ‘idea’ of nationalising the mines was neither new, nor did it express any ‘popular’ of socialist shift within the ruling class. Factions within the colonial regime had opted for nationalisation and later on, during the Nehru developmental regime, steps towards ‘centralisation’ were taken, e.g. through setting up the Committee on the Amalgamation of Collieries in 1955. Formally the main mines might have been ‘privately owned’, but they were dependent on institutional (World Bank) credit, state controlled prices, mainly state-run industries as consumers. The mining sector itself was already very centralised: a few mining houses accounted for 70 per cent of the total output; in 1971, 34.5 per cent of the mines produced only 1.32 per cent of the total output and 60.9 per cent barely 10.6. In this sense ‘nationalisation’ was a rather formal step.

Miner statueThe onset of the crisis by the mid-1960s forced the state towards this formal step: the wider industry was eager for lower energy input costs. It is revealing to see how the regime made use of ‘controlled forces of competition’ in order to implement the formal act of nationalisation – how state and market are not separate entities, but mediating forms of class power. In 1967 the state ‘de-controlled’ the coal prices, which passed the price pressure on to the coal producers. The railway apparatus became a main price negotiator with the mining industry. This happened for three reasons: the railways used to run their own mines and therefore had insights in mining activities; the railways were a main consumer of coal themselves; the mining industry depended on the railways for transport. The negotiated ‘Loco Price’ became a generalised price for the industry and pushed the ‘private mines’ into a formal bankruptcy by 1971.

The regime used and shaped the ‘competition’ of its internal apparatus, like the railways, in order to negotiate its way through the crisis. The ‘class cohesion’ behind this ‘competition of different interests’ revealed itself subsequently, once the general attack on the working class emerged. In the following years this attack hit workers in all ‘competing sectors’, from the mines, to the railways to the manufacturing industry. In a single week following the nationalisation of coal mines nearly 50,000 miners in the Dhanbad region lost their jobs and were partly replaced by ‘newly immigrated workers’. During the first three years of nationalisation total production went up from 70 to 90 million tonnes, the fatality rate through labour accidents per thousand jumped from 0.42 in 1974 to 1.4 in 1975. In May 1974 tens of thousand railway workers were arrested during their general strike, which hinted at the general repression of workers’ unrest during the State of Emergency, which was declared in the same year as when the ‘state-owned’ Coal India Ltd. was formed.

After nationalisation in 1971-73 it was not sufficient to merely change the formal owner-ship of mines, the actual production process had to be re-shaped. The first main shift in the Dhanbad area was a kind of selection process between mines, which were to be incorporated into Coal India Ltd. and mines to be left out in the ‘illegalised fringe’. For following reason this process was the most intense in the Dhanbad-Jharia region: Coking coal reserves – coal with high energy content important for steel production – constitute only 15-20 per cent of the total Indian coal reserves and these reserves are concentrated in the two fields of Jharia and Ranigunj. In 1972, Jharia coal fields accounted for about 66 per cent of India’s total output of coking coal. At the same time these coal fields were characterised by the highest share of small mines, over 300 small mines in total. The dualism of ‘illegal mining’ and ‘centralised mines’ became the sharpest in this particular area. The emergence if ‘the mafia’ was also based on its bridge function between these to sectors of uneven development.

The mining regime tried establishing a stable core-workforce, in certain terms ‘privileged’, in order to find secure conditions for the mechanisation process – while the mechanisation process in turn was driven by the ‘flight’ from an unruly mass of industrial workers. The wider proletarian unrest of the 1967 – 1974 period had also entered the coalfields and was only shortly interrupted by the Emergency. In 1977 workers struggles, mainly among the contract work-force, broke out again – see for example movements in the Rajhera mining area, which were brutally quelled by the post-Emergency democratic government. [10] From 1971 we can see a shift towards capital-intensive open-cast mining and intensified international cooperation with ‘mining capital’ from Soviet Union, Poland, Australia, Germany and the UK – which was not only a ‘technology transfer’, but also a transfer of experience with a century of ‘class struggle management’.

The ‘nationalisation’ also re-defined the formal border-lines between different stages of development, by de-marketing more clearly what is called ‘the illegal mining sector’.

Illegalised Mining

‘Illegal mining’ existed before nationalisation, it emerged – it was ‘illegalised’ – with the introduction of land property titles and the encroachment of common land by the colonial state. The process of ‘nationalisation’ re-shaped the ‘illegalised sector’ and its relation to the ‘official economy’, the boundaries of a hierarchical division within the local working class were re-drawn and enforced in legal terms.

It is estimated that 20 to 30 per cent of total coal production in India stems from illegalised mines. Summarised by illegality are mines of different characters: from small-scale village mining with hardly any machinery applied to ‘professional’ mines employing several hundred people, which often function in collaboration with management of state-company CIL, e.g. they receive by-passed working material from the official sector. In some cases, the same mine is operated both officially and unofficially, e.g. in a Bansra mine where 44 local brick kilns purchase the illegal coal mined from the 7 feet upper layer, whereas the 18-20 feet thick lower layer is worked by CIL. Mines are ‘illegalised’ by CIL decision that under official CIL conditions (wages, security etc.) the exploitation is not profitable. The mine then enters the labour intensive, low wage and precarious realm, where workers are under extra-pressure of law and mafia-type of middlemen. Some of the smaller mines mainly supply the wider rural industry, such as brick-kilns, or their product is sold on local markets, e.g. for domestic use, tea stalls etc.. Other coal enters the general wider circulation via transport contractors as middlemen.

Indian women mining
Due to their labour intensive character illegalised mines suck in larger shares of the rural proletariat than the official mines. During the 1970s and 1980s to get a permanent job at CIL required personal connections, bribes, a certain official qualification. ‘Illegalised mines’ are part of the reproduction of a proletariat, which is increasingly expelled from the main mines through mechanisation and hierarchical labour markets. ‘Offering jobs’ and small business opportunities the illegalised mines became an important factor in local politics. It is said that no political party, which announced to close illegal mines would win a local election in Dhanbad area. The ‘Jharkhand Movement’ wanted to turn them into ‘cooperatives’, whereas later on the NGO sector saw them as ‘local development opportunities’. The following two quotations demonstrate how the ‘hellish character’ of these mines is re-packaged as ‘local development opportunity’ and ‘common right’ by the NGO sector.

"Javir Kumar, 14, works in illegal coal mines, each a “rat hole,” 10 X 10 foot and 400 foot deep, where a mere slip of the foot will plunge one to a certain death. A large number of children aged below 14 are working in such mines, built unscientifically, in Jharkhand’s Hazaribagh district. These mine workers are mostly from Orissa, West Bengal, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Assam. Every five minutes, a wooden bucket brimming with coal is heaved out of a burrow. The coal is dumped on the side of the quarry before being loaded on to the waiting truck. Every day, a child mines 30-40 buckets. These mines are increasing in numbers, manned mostly by children ranging in age from 7 to 17."

(April 2011 –

"These are called peoples’ mines and they serve a significant purpose in local economies. The article’s thesis is that peasant communities are trying to claim back a portion of the local resources lost to them through appropriation by mining companies thus re-asserting their traditional rights to local mineral resources. In conclusion, the need for a new moral economy for mining regions is stressed: an economy in which local communities will play a powerful role."

(Natural Resources Forum, Volume 27, Issue 1, pages 68-77, February 2003)

Accidents in the official mines often turn into triggers for unrest. In 1996, 64 miners drowned in Dhanbad because of flooding of mine. The only forces mobilized in significant strength were the police to lathi-charge and keep at bay the angry relatives and co-workers, who sought to confront the chief minister and other VIPs. After the flooding incidents, there were spontaneous protests in many mines against unsafe working conditions. But not only work is unofficial in the ‘illegalised’ mines, death is, too. Officially around 800 workers died in mining accidents in Dhanbad area in the two decades between 1980 and 1990s – the unofficial number including death in the ‘peoples’ mines will be higher. After fatal accidents in the unofficial mines surviving relatives are often threatened by thugs to keep stumm.

During the 1970s and 1980s the illegalised mines became one of the economic and social bases for the emerging Dhanbad mafia. In the following we have a brief look at the general position of the mafia in the reproduction of class relations.

The Dhanbad Mafia

In India the name Dhanbad is synonymous with coal mafia. Together with the ‘nationalised command’ over the mines appeared a ‘mafia mode of production’, which was both part and outcome of the re-structuring process. The mafia is an economical and political network, which reaches from money-lending, illegal liquor shops, paid goons to illegal mining and transport contracts, which are connected to the high ranks of CIL management department. The Dhanbad mafia controlled the main trade unions, bought off the police and local administration and was well represented in the Bihar state parliament. The ‘individual components’ of the mafia, e.g. money-lending, gangs of musclemen or individual corruption within companies, existed before the 1960s and 1970s and they still exist – so why and under which conditions did these ‘individual components’ form into a cohesive structure, into ‘clans’ which would auction police stations between themselves and who had hundreds killed ‘on demand’? In the following we want to give a short summary of the development of the mafia, in particular of its relation to workers reproduction and class conflict.

Tree - Dhanbad mafiaFirst of all there is a specific quality to the mining industry, in terms of the product, production process and class relations, which tends towards organised violence. The mining product is a located raw material, mining requires ‘struggle over and with land’ and its property form. Mining can be done on very different scales: from a single person with primitive tools to large industrial enterprises. In this way mining allows ‘extra-legal’ appropriation and a wide range of ‘modes of production’. Mining work in its form is brutal, compared to other industries the command over living labour required a higher degree of direct violence. Once performed on an industrial level mining concentrates a mass of workers, often migrant workers, who tend to depend more on middlemen. Historically and globally class struggles in the coal fields have always been characterised by its violent forms. The 1960s and 1970s have been particularly unruly decades. The fact that the main trade unions like Congress affiliated INTUC – already connected to the political class – became an organised and institutionalised form of violence used by mining capital in order to discipline workers can be seen as the material base for the development of ‘the mafia’. As early as 1958 many violent attacks of INTUC cadres on AITUC (Communist Party union) were reported from Dhanbad. At that point INTUC and the coal mine owners formed a united front demanding higher guaranteed coal prices from the government. By the late 1960s and the emergence of ‘Naxalite’-influenced unions like A.K. Roy’s Bihar Colliery Kamgar Union (BCKU) the repression intensified and became more systematic. Here we find blatant parallels in time and space. B. P. Sinha or Suraj Deo Singh, prominent union and mafia leaders in Dhanbad in the 1970s match the brutality of a W. A. Boyle of the United Mining Workers in the US. The brutality of workers’ struggle in the mines of Harlan County in the mid-1970s, the paid thugs, corrupt local police and the class collaboration of the UMWA developed similar forms to those in Dhanbad.

But brutalised, extra-legal forms of class struggle and a collaborationist trade union apparatus do not yet form a mafia. The mafia formed part of the economic cycle and production process and had a populist paternalistic element. The roots reached right into the individual reproduction of the mining workers. Quite early on the main trade union apparatus converged with moneylenders and labour contractors, who in turn were often foremen in the mines or former ‘village-leaders’ who now trafficked labour-power between villages and mining areas. In the early 1970s it was reported that around 40 to 50 per cent of all mining workers were indebted to moneylenders, who often extorted money on payday, with the help of the upper-hierarchy. This network reached into the ‘reproduction sphere’ in form of gambling dens, illegal distilleries and into the sphere of unofficial mining.

The re-structuring during the nationalisation process opened various gaps between the centralised command and workers reproduction, between different groups of workers, between different sectors and departments of the emerging ‘state-run company’. The ‘mafia’ mediated between these gaps both economically – in form of contractors or managers of illegalised mines – and politically, as part of the trade unions and within the political burocracy. The ‘mafia’ emerged as a quasi outsourced economical and political department of the now centralised state-industry. With the large-scale replacement of work-force during the first weeks of nationalisation, the so-called ‘ghost-workers’ appeared on the pay-roll. People with ‘connections’ managed to get a salaried job in CIL without actually working there. With the vast merger of nationalisation lot of contracts has to be re-shifted, the ‘mafia’ took over most of the transport contracts, which also functioned as interfaces to the now more drastically illegalised mines. From foremen to medium management, the new contractual conditions enabled many to yield some ‘extra-income’. By 1981 it was said that the CIL subsidiary Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL) in Dhanbad had about 5,000 paid ‘elements’ on their pay-roll, people who could also be used as thugs against unruly workers. [11]

By the late 1970s after the end of the Emergency the Congress, the ‘Party of Independence’ became contested for the first time and lost elections in 1977. From now on the trade unions became even more important factors in the faction fights within the political class. The ‘mafia dons’, who had started their careers as transport contractors and union leaders, became politicians. In 1978 B.P. Sinha, who had been a mafia/union leader close to the INTUC/Congress was killed, Suraj Deo Singh formed a new union Janata Mazdoor Sangh (JMS) close to the now ruling Janata Dal and became elected as an MLA from Jharia. The ‘mafia/party’-infight reached a peak and dozens were killed within a few weeks time. The Government of India set up a special cell (Dhanbad) in the Home Ministry. The officer chosen to head the Special Cell was K. N. Prasad, a well-known Emergency hawk. He warned that “stringent action will be taken to stop forcible collection from the workers by moneylenders and trade union leaders … Action will also be taken to stop gherao, wildcat strikes and violent demonstration”. One of the first measures suggested by the Home Ministry official was the arrest of key BCKU leaders – the BKCU was a fairly militant working class organisation and probably one of the few official forces not attached to the mafia.

While it is not surprising that both INTUC/RCMS union and JMS union saw workers, at best, as union-due paying foot-soldiers for the political power fight and based their main influence on the collaboration with the CIL management, the development of the BCKU seems more complex. The BCKU’s dominating figure was A.K. Roy, who was expelled from the CPI(M) for Naxalite deviations in the late 1960s. He went to the Dhanbad mining area and organised mainly contract mining workers. Like Shankar Niyogi in the Rajhera mining area he had to face violent attacks by both the mining management and the main trade unions cum mafia. The combination of these violent confrontations and Maoist ideology lead the BCKU to mobilise the mining workers not only as ‘workers’, but they joined the regionalist and ‘indigenous’ propaganda of the emerging Jharkhand Movement – see next section. Like the mafia trade unions the BCKU leadership tried to enter the political arena in the form of the Marxist Coordination Committee (MCC), A.K. Roy was elected as a MLA while being imprisoned during Emergency.

In some ways the murder of Gurudas Chatterjee, the MCC MLA in April 2000 by remnants of the Dhanbad Mafia was the sad end of an era. We can say that by the mid 1990s the ‘neoliberal reforms’ (formal outsourcing of mining activities, general casualisation of labour and decline of trade unions), the new economic and political opportunities (real estate bubble and ‘success’ of the regionalist Jharkhand Movement) dissolved the ‘mafia’. The ‘gaps’ between state, capitalist command and wider (re-)production process which had been opened during the process of nationalisation were closed by ‘neoliberal liquidity’ or could now be filled by ‘normal’ economical and political business. The mafia had shaped the class relations in Dhanbad for two decades. Workers had to deal with the mafia in form of various (money-lending, job-trafficking) middlemen and collectively in form of repressive trade unions – and the mafia had offered ‘career and business opportunities’ to workers of a certain strata. The Jharkhand Movement was the other main social-political factor in the mining areas of the 1970s to 1990s, which mobilised sections of the working class on the bases of its segmented existence and promised a better future through regional class collaboration.

The Jharkhand Movement

The state Jharkhand was formed in November 2000, before that the mining areas of Dhanbad-Jharia and the steel manufacturing regions around Bokaro and Jamshedpur were situated in the southern part of Bihar. A regionalist ‘Jharkhand Movement’ emerged in the 1920s, but only gained significant influence with the constitution of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (Jharkhand Liberation Front, JMM) in 1972 by Shibu Soren.

There was a material base for this regionalist tendency, in the sense of ‘regional bourgeois interests’ and the possibility to link this interest to populist politics able to mobilise a significant share of the local proletarian / small peasantry population. The main factor in terms of regional bourgeois interest is the concentration of Bihar’s mineral wealth in its southern part and the concentration of the subsequent industrial investments. The initial stages of the regionalist movement can be explained as a clash between the interests of industrial capital in the south with the mainly agrarian ruling class in wider Bihar.

The formation of a ‘regionalist’ popular identity, like the formation of most identities, was an effort ‘in hindsight’. Initially the historical-cultural justification for the constitution of an ‘independent’ Jharkhand was based on the ‘adivasi’ (indigenous/tribal) identity of a significant amount of the local population, an “ethnic differences between the people of Chhotanagpur and Santhal Parganas and the people of north Bihar”. The category ‘adivasi’ is mainly a product of colonial population management, summarising various regional, tribal and caste formations. ‘Left-wing’ identitarian ideology became part of the tool-box for regionalist liberation movements, e.g. the ‘adivasis’ were portrayed as a ‘rebellious’ and ‘egalitarian’ community. “Tribal revolts like the Kol Rebellion, the Santhal Rebellion or the Birsa Movement are well known. The famous Santhal insurrection of 1855 was against the introduction of the British administration and land tenure systems.” “Their societies are community-based with land owned communally. Community life is cooperative and based on sharing, with decisions taken jointly through consensus. They consider their societies classless, egalitarian and close to nature.” [12] This left-wing community-building leaves out that amongst the ‘adivasis’ there were tribes worshipping kings who, by birth-right, owned half of the village land. It also leaves out that before the ‘adivasi’-identity became a promising ticket in southern Bihar, many ‘tribals’ were eager to integrate themselves into the higher-up caste hierarchy, e.g. the ‘tribal’ Mahatos (settled in Jharkhand, but originally from Bengal) were recognised as caste Kurmis by 1929 and claimed caste kinship with Marathas or Patidars far away from Bihar.

Jharkhand movementDue to the mining work related labour migration starting from the late 19th century the ‘tribal’ population became minoritarian and marginalised in the region of south Bihar – the mine owners replaced the local village workers increasingly with migrant workers. The ‘regional bourgeoisie’, too, was actually formed by ‘outsiders’ who came to the region around the turn of the last century. Therefore the Jharkhand Liberation Movement had to extend their cultural regional identity to a wider identity: the Jharkhandis, a category even blurrier than the tribal category. With such a recent history of migration it became difficult to define who is an ‘outsider’ and who is a Jharkhandi. Schools tried to elaborate on the ‘Jharkhandi dialect from the 1970s onwards, but the main help in this difficult task of self-identification was given by yet another shift of local class composition during nationalisation 1971 – 73 and during Emergency 1975, when thousands of ‘local’ mining workers (allegedly mainly adivasis and dalits) were replaced by new batches of migrant workers. The ‘rural poor’ in the region had suffered varies similar blows in recent history, e.g. during the first three Five Year Plans of the 1950s and 1960s, more than 50,000 ‘scheduled tribe’ families and 10,000 ‘scheduled caste’ families in the region were uprooted from their homes to make land available for the construction of public sector industrial projects. The total number of displaced families would higher if we consider the private sector industries and remember that coal mines, at that time, were in the private sector. The fact that ‘local’ people have been displaced during the 1950s and 1960s and the fact that they now lost jobs in the 1970s opened space for ‘regionalist ideologies’ within the local proletariat.

The emergence of the Maoist-influenced union movement in the late 1960s gave the regionalist tendencies more credibility amongst the lower section of the working class. Being under full-attack from management, state, main trade unions and mafia, the Maoist-influenced union movement tried to widen and strengthen their struggle amongst the ‘most down-trodden’ by appealing to regionalist forces. The fact that initially the Jharkhand liberation movement got engaged in campaigns against ‘outside’ moneylenders appealed to the Maoists. The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha was formed together with the MCC in 1972. Instead of tackling the question of divisions within the working class in terms of ‘class composition’, the Maoist ideology of peasant-workers alliance was re-shaped in regionalist terms: the ‘peasantry’ was turned into the ‘Jharkhandi rural population’. This was later to be repeated, e.g. by the People’s War Group (PWG) in their support for regionalist movements in Andhra Pradesh. At the time the Maoist ideologues expressed this political decision as follows: “The Jharkhand struggle, apart from being directed against the real exploiters and oppressors, is also directed against another oppressed class – the working class. In a sense the situation is similar to the relations between the privileged working class in the imperialist countries and the peasants in colonies.” They described the situation of the ‘privileged’ permanent mining workers from ‘outside’ as follows: “Under the peculiar situation of class struggles in Jharkhand they have two options open to them – either to rally with their hated caste brothers in the name of ethnic solidarity [outside bourgeoisie], or to oppose them and uphold the point of class-solidarity with the downtrodden Jharkhandis. But they do neither and, as a result, there is complete confusion about their role vis-a-vis Jharkhand movement.” [13]

The MCC initial alliance with the ‘regional bourgeoisie’ would not only create confusion within the working class, it also turned against the Maoists movement itself – although the current ‘insurrectionist’ Maoist guerrilla can not be equated with the MCC as such. As early as 1975 the ‘liberation movement’ started to intensify the tension between different ‘proletarian sections’, leading to, e.g. the Chirudih massacre which left eleven ‘outsiders’ dead. During the 1980s the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha found followers amongst the big land-owners, for example the zamindar Basant Narayan Singh, amongst big industrialist – and last, but not least amongst the ‘mafia’. In November 2000 Jharkhand became an independent state. From 2002 onwards the Jharkhand state started to mobilise para-military troops, for example in form of the Nagrik Suraksha Samiti (NSS), against the armed Maoists movement operating in Jharkhand. Ironically enough the ‘Red Army war-fare’ of the Maoists led to an increasing ‘Mafia-isation’ of the Maoists themselves. In order to finance their ‘people’s army’ they have to raise ‘taxes’ from small coal mines, timber and tendu leaf contractors, petrol pumps – allegedly they also get involved in poppy plantations and other lucrative business. By 2006 the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha ‘tribal’ leader Shibu Soren had become Indian Minister for Coal – in November of the same year he was charged with involvement in bribe-related murder. In 2010 the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha started closer collaboration with the Hindu-nationalist BJP. In general we cannot say that the new Jharkhandi state treats the ‘Jharkhandis’ with much more respect that its predecessor: in April 2011 the state forces killed a dozen people protesting against displacement. The current displacement drive in the Dhanbad-Jharia region threatens around half a million people.

The Mechanisation

One of the ‘aims’ of centralisation of mining capital under the state umbrella in the early 1970s was to further mechanisation. The next phase of mechanisation was accompanied by a massive shift in work-force after nationalisation 1973 – capital wanted to combine a fresh work-force with the new technology; and it was politically accompanied by the heavy blanket of state of Emergency from 1975 to 1977. Like in most other industries the Emergency was a peak-time of retrenchments, work intensification and re-structuring in the mining industry of Dhanbad. In 1978 the Munidih Project was declared the first fully mechanised mine in Asia after mechanised ‘self-advancing’ longwall technology was introduced for the first time in Indian mining history. Mining capital literally tried to escape from the troubled surface of the mining region, the Munidih Project became one of India’s deepest mines. The brutal force of mechanised road headers drove one part of the local working class 500 metres down into the earth, while another part was subjected to the personal violence of labour intensive regime in the unofficial mines nearby. The control over the mechanical automation of the early 1980s was intensified by the introduction of micro-electronics from the mid-1980s onwards.

During the 1980s the cogs of mechanisation met two related resisting dynamics: the struggles of workers in and against the re-structuring and the profit squeeze. Most of the ‘anti-mechanisation’ struggles reported are struggles of workers who would potentially be retrenched by the labour-saving consequences – there is little documentation of struggles ‘within and against the machine’. In the 1980s in a mining area in neighbouring West Bengal workers’ resistance brought a prestigious joint-venture project to a stand-still. Continued agitation by those being displaced and the contract workers employed for digging the shaft, forced the Russian corporation and CIL to abandon the experimental Nakrakonda project (which was meant to test the equipment and machinery before they were deployed on a large scale). The union leaders of the CITU, INTUC and AITUC signed various agreements accepting the demands of the management. This attitude of the main unions was and is wide-spread: acceptance of and collaboration in the re-structuring process in turn for recognition as the representing body of the then reduced core work-force. We document another example from 2002, which reveals the limits of ‘anti-mechanisation’ struggles.

Mechanisation in coal minesIn 2002 CIL management re-opened an open cast mining project in Koyagudem (Yellandu). The extraction begun with surface miner instead of the shovel and dumper, drastically reducing the number of workers necessary (from 317 to 18). On 5th October 2002 a thousand people were mobilized to obstruct the work of the surface miner – half of them were peasants and agricultural labourers mobilized from surrounding villages, 200 were coal miners and 300 were workers of motor transport, tiles and loaders. The mobilisation was accompanied by a radical-left splinter party. After remaining stalled for 55 days, work with the surface miner was recommenced by the management and contractor on 31st December under the cover of a massive police force. On 10th January the Parirakshana Union Committee called for encircling the Koyagudem open-cast mine and 4000 workers with hundreds of other people laid a seize that day. The ensuing gathering movement described above led to all unions giving a joint call for indefinite strike. Armed police manned the mines, residential colonies of workers and the offices. Hundreds of people including coal miners, were arrested daily, several lathi charges were resorted to. The strike continued for 15 days. However on 7th February 2003, four trade unions of Singareni Parirakshan Committee concluded an agreement with the management and abruptly called off the strike.

By the late 1980s the mechanisation drive rammed into the profit squeeze: out-put productivity might had been increased, total coal production doubled during the 1980s, but production costs per ton were not lowered too a more profitable level. In 1986-87 the Coal India Limited accumulated losses stood at 18,000 million Rs. Again the main trade unions became part-takers of managing ‘contradictive productivity’. In 1988 a committee which included top CIL officials and representatives of INTUC, AITUC and CITU concluded that “High OMS [out-put per man-shift] does not necessarily mean cost minimisation; between 1980-81 and 1985-86 while the wage cost per tonne of coal went up from Rs 73.18 to Rs 103.51, the total cost per tonne of coal went up from Rs 123.12 to Rs 214.20 per tonne. There was an increase in the real cost of production of coal as the price index rose by less than the 75 per cent increase in cost of production.” A concrete example was the Rajmahal Coal Mining Project in Jharkhand, at the time Asia’s largest open-cast coal mine. In the late 1980s it employed a workforce of only 2,400, most operations were automatised. But the production cost of coal were said to be 440 Rs per ton, whereas the sale price at the time was around 260 per ton.

In a way these conditions in the coal mining industry were symptomatic for the wider industrial environment and India’s economic situation as a whole. The state, as a major capitalist enterprise, defaulted under accumulated debts. In 1991 the Indian state had to declare that foreign exchange reserves were depleted and that it will not be able to pay back its foreign debts. A loan program was set-up and the ‘external loan conditions’ were used in order to attack the working class in India with a state regulated pressure of market-forces: liberalisation of the domestic market, lowering of trade barriers, privatisation. In the official mining industry the attack on labour costs took the form of redundancies and large scale casualisation of workers throughout the 1990s – we give a short overview on this period in the following section.

Casualisation and (Re-)Privatisation

During the late 1980s and early 1990s the Dhanbad-Munidih area witnessed a series of ‘independent’ mining workers strikes, which challenged CIL management as much as they defied the main unions and the mafia itself. On 16th of December 1988 the piece-rated workers in all mines of area 7 went on strike. Unrest continued till July-August 1990, workers actively fought back mafia attacks. Subsequently two workers were killed in a police firing during a state attack on strikers. In late 1992 several thousand workers went on wildcat strike in area 6 open-cast project and forced management to take back on workers who they had dismissed earlier on. Workers had tried to prevent management from introducing 26 days pay for a 30 days working month.

These movements demonstrated that the clutch of the main trade unions and the mafia had weakened. The problem for the Dhanbad CIL workers was that ironically the repressive union and mafia apparatus was dissolved by the same force which also managed to isolate and undermine the very position of the workers themselves: the liquid and dissolving force of the neoliberal regime. During the 1990s the personal clout of moneylenders was increasingly replaces by the impersonal terror of micro-credits, the paternalistic regime of the old village leaders by internationally funded NGOs, the ‘illegal mines’ became outsourced ‘logistics’ departments, the old union leader cum labour contractor were increasingly replaced by human resource management and the old mafia don shifted their business interest from the dirty sphere of production process towards the emerging real estate bubble. Having escaped the paternalistic grasp of the union-mafia, the hard-core of mining-workers of Dhanbad did not find an answer to the slow-motion of de-composition during the 1990s.

BCCLDuring the 1990s the mining industry witnessed a kind of reversed repetition of the pre-nationalisation period: a slow default of the industry, a loan from international credit institutions (World Bank), which was used in order to finance re-structuring; major shifts in the composition of the work-force. This time, instead of ‘nationalisation’, the regime moves in the direction of ‘formal privatisation’. The ‘privatisation’ is accompanied by a general hiring stop for permanent workers – wages for the post-1992 hired contracted workers are around 10 per cent of the wages of the CIL permanent workers. The prestigious Munidih Project mine, which employed over 8,000 permanent workers in the early 1980s now employs less than 2,000 permanents. The other main shift is the brutal expansion of open-cast mining. The main investments go into dynamite, diggers and trucks – what is left is a labour-saving battle-field of extraction, a ripped landscape. Open-cast mining increases the division between a relatively small work-force and a local impoverished proletariat. The open-cast drive explains the rapid increase of total CIL coal production from 200 Mt in 1992 to 430 Mt in 2010.

In the following we have a brief look at the ‘controlled default’ of CIL during the 1990s. The accumulated losses of CIL had reached 25,000 million Rs by 1991, which were mainly outstanding liabilities to the government of India. In 1993 the CIL approached the World Bank for a 500 million USD loan for investments into the company – actually most of the money was used to finance the retrenchment of about 140,000 workers during the following years. Referring to the ‘external pressure’ and the conditions attached to the World Bank loan the CIL management and the Indian state started to provide the legal steps for further outsourcing and casualisation of the industry. In 1994, the state in India amended its Coal Mines Nationalization Act allowing foreign companies to hold a 51 percent stake in Indian coal mines. In order to attract investment the government of India waived 9,000 million Rs liabilities for CIL in 1995. In the same year a major conference hosted by CIL and 50 NGO’s took place in Kolkata in order to find ecologically and socially ‘sustainable’ ways for the large-scale open-cast mining drive. The ‘agreements’ of the conference later on appeared as proof for the ‘developmental character’ of the World Bank loan. According to government sources – not the most critical source – less than 35 per cent of displaced people get re-habilitated and the fact that CIL pledged to cut down its workforce in return for the loans also meant that displaced people would never get a permanent job in the actual mines.

The situation today: A visit in Dhanbad

In the Dhanbad-Jharia coal-fields we met up with permanent mining workers employed by the CIL subsidiary Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL) – mainly employed as skilled mechanics. They have been working in the Dhanbad mines since the late 1970s – during the early 1980s they became members of the Revolutionary Socialist Party / Marxist-Leninist (RSP-ML). The RSP-ML split from the RSP in 1969, critical of the parliamentarist turn of the latter. It remained a fairly small political organisation, mainly composed of skilled workers in the old industries like mining, steel manufacturing or the railways. The party emphasises ‘the revolutionary program’ and the ‘development of class consciousness’. Trade unions are regarded as capitalist institutions, which divert class struggle into economism and they see Trotzkyism, Stalinism and Maoism as bourgeois deviations. Despite the – compared to other communist parties – very working-class base of the party, their monthly party organ ‘Kranti Yug’ (Revolutionary Era), hardly reflects the proletarian experience of the organisation and mainly focuses on ‘general politics and their communist interpretation’.

The RSP-ML can be seen as politically attractive for ‘class conscious workers’ like the mining workers comrades in Dhanbad for various reasons. The fact that the party puts a lot of emphasis on ‘theoretical work and positions’ matches the more educated background of these skilled workers. Some of the Dhanbad comrades had been politicised during their participation in the J.P. Movement (Bihar Movement) in the mid-1970s and during Emergency. Their working-times of 8-hour shifts, which could often be shortened unofficially, and a weekly day off allowed to spend time for party activities and study circles. Most of them joined the party individually, after having been convinced of the correctness of its position. The actual day-to-day experiences with trade unions in the mining area and the results of Maoist ‘regionalist alliances’ confirmed the main party lines. But given the rapid changes, the skilled permanent miners find themselves materially marginalised within the new class composition. Their emphasis on ‘class consciousness’ as a precondition for revolutionary struggle becomes more and more a tautological straw to cling onto in order to compensate the feeling of social isolation. The young generation of workers does not use ‘political jargon’ they don’t have time and resources for party activities. The ‘old communists’ denounce them as ‘egoistic’, because they only think about their ‘individual problems’ and not in ‘class terms’. The ‘class consciousness’ of these old workers becomes a cocoon out of which all single conflicts in the area can be interpreted as ‘merely economistic’. The party has become isolated and does not find a practical way to relate to the multi-faced and facetted working class and its material separations – having a look at the different ‘conflicts’ in the area we can assess the difficulty of finding the ‘class program’ within a process of both self-organisation and generalisation.

Dhanbad - the situation todayAfter spending a few days in Dhanbad-Jharia you are surprised about the large amounts of ‘conflicts’ in the area. You stumble into protest demonstrations in front of administration offices or sit-down actions in front of mine gates and half of the local news in the mainstream newspapers covers some kind of protest related to the mines. At the same time it is obvious that each proletarian group struggles ‘on the bases of it’s own specific relation to the mines and for its specific demands’, represented by their respective institutions: permanent workers, workers hired through contractors, unemployed, displaced villagers. In the following we give a brief overview on conflicts in spring 2011.

The permanent mining workers

The comrades say that the struggles of the permanent workers are shaped by the fact that their total numbers have been reduced to about a third within the last three decades – in Munidih Project even to a quarter of their strength in the 1980s. These old core workers are still under attack. In July 2009, BCCL management announced to shift 10,000 permanent workers from various mines in Jharia to other mines – which was seen as a provocation and a possible instigation to get the workforce engaged in struggles, which could lead to retrenchments. In October 2010 CIL announced to cut its workforce by another 10 per cent in the coming two years. In the official mines permanent workers form about 40 per cent of the manual workforce today, most of the hard jobs are done by the younger and much worse paid contracted workers. A comrade said that the official protests against privatisation of CIL are weak: in April 2010 CIL workers were supposed to go on strike against the CIL share sales, but three of the main trade unions reached a deal with Indian Coal Minister on 16th of April and ended any involvement – part of the agreement was that permanent CIL workers would be offered company shares at a special price. The comrade continued that some struggles developed in the outsourced mines once the new management wanted to introduce worse working-conditions for the remaining ‘old CIL workers’ – these struggles are more direct, but remain isolated. During early March 2011, various permanent workers unions in several mines announced work-to-rule token strikes in order to enforce the 9th wage agreement. The protest remained marginal even within the permanent workforce.

The workers hired through contractors

After 1992 no workers have been hired as permanents, all production workers are since then hired through contractors. They now form 60 per cent of the work-force in Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL). While permanent workers earn between 700 Rs and 1,000 Rs a day and receive company health care, company accommodation and other benefits, the workers hired through contractors are paid 100 Rs a day and they receive no extra benefits. Most of the workers hired through contractors are not unionised. On 8th of March 2011, when permanent workers unions announced the token strike for the wage agreement, security guards employed through a private company in a Jharia mine protested in front of the mine administration office, demanding outstanding wages. The last time that permanent and temporary workers in Munidih Project fought together was in November 2010 after a temporary worker had died after an accident. Both groups of workers went on two-three days wildcat strike demanding compensation for the family, which the management agreed to in the end. At the same 8th of March 2011, unorganised sector workers (from unofficial mines and coal processing plants) organised by the BCKU held a protest rally in front of main administration in Barora and Block 2, demanding the payment of minimum wages and the implementation of other ‘statutory rights’.

The unemployed

The separation between the individual groups is the most full-on when it comes to ‘fathers and sons’. While the fathers might still work as permanent miners for CIL, their sons are organised in local unemployed unions, protesting and blockading to demand permanent jobs. The sons of permanent workers are very unlikely to continue working in the local mines – they would not want to work for 10 per cent of their father’s wage. The ‘unemployed movement’ is mainly comprised of miners’ sons or sons of the middle-peasantry – it is sometimes organised by a displaced village community. During our visit protests were organised around a local captive power plant in Munidih. BCCL had subcontracted the plant to a private company. The ‘new ‘power plant would employ around 200 people. The private company hired only 20 people from local villages directly, the rest either came from ‘outside’ or hired through contractor on 100 Rs daily wages. In March 2011, the local young unemployed, most of them sons of BCCL permanent workers, some of them sons of the RSP(ML) comrades, staged a protest in front of the power plant. They formed the ‘Unemployed Youth Organisation’ and demanded 60 permanent jobs for each of the two nearby villages. The power plant management postponed the hiring process and the start of production, but at first refused negotiations. The ‘Unemployed Youth Organisation’ – around 80 to 100 people – staged demonstrations, continued the blockade of the power plant and announced a hunger strike. In April 2011 the power plant management agreed to hiring 50 people from each of the villages. While the ‘Unemployed Youth Organisation’ demonstrated at the power plant, in around 5 km distance 20 people of ‘Unemployed Unity Platform’ staged a one-day protest in front of the main mine. Mainly comprised of former local farmers they claimed that they have been displaced by BCCL mines and demanded permanent jobs. They put forward a demand notice and threatened to ‘blockade’ the mine.

Either ‘unemployed protest’ or going far away for work. Given the relatively high income of their fathers, a lot of them have received a ‘good education’. Some managed to get ‘good jobs’, for example as mechanics for the Indian Air Force in Chandigarh. Others migrated to Mumbai or Delhi, in order to work in a call centre, as in one case, or in a lift manufacturing company, as in a different case. Compared to their parents’ situation, their conditions are dire. They have to move around to find temporary jobs, which don’t pay enough to either maintain the current standard of living of their parents’ generation, or allow the ‘educational expenses’ for a future generation. “My dad works on 8-hours shifts, but in the mines they still manage to leave the job early. Someone will clock out for you. If you have the right job, for example in maintenance, you might work 4 or 6 hours a day. We have to put up with 10 or 12 hours shifts”.

The displaced villagers

Many villages are directly affected by mining: displacement, pollution, burnt-up agriculture land, polluted water; or/and they claim their share in the mining in form of permanent jobs or ‘infrastructural investment’. On 8th of March 2011 villagers in Paharigora blockaded rail-tracks, mainly used by the coal mines, in order to demand better water supply. Their water had been dried up mainly by the coal washeries and other mining operations. On 27th of April 2011 police killed two protestors in Dhanbad by gun-shot and injured more than a dozen. People had been protesting the anti-encroachment drive at a Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL) colony located in Kusunda and Matkuria, about 8 kms from Dhanbad. People set fire to about 16 vehicles, out of which 11 belonged to the BCCL authorities. State police headquarters said people of the area started pelting stones at the administration team, which went for the eviction of local people allegedly occupying BCCL quarters.

The guerrilla warfare in the mining fringe areas

The Maoist armed insurrection sees the mining area first of all as an ‘economic power-base’ of the enemy, less as a territory of class struggle. They blow up rail-tracks in the impoverished fringes, hoping to put pressure on the government and mining capital. On 8th of February 2011 Maoists blew up train tracks in three places in the Dhanbad railway division disrupting traffic for hours. The traffic on the important Coal India Chord (CIC) remained disrupted from 2am to 10.30am till the tracks were restored. On 5th of March Maoist guerrillas attacked police posts in nearby Balumath, killing two. They subsequently blew up rail-tracks. On 3rd of May 2011 eleven policemen were killed and at least 20 injured when Maoists ambushed a police team in Lohardaga district of Jharkhand. On 21st of May 2011 a 48-hour ‘strike’ called by the Maoists has evoked mixed response. The strike hardly had any impact in urban areas, including Jamshedpur. The strike affected mainly shops and transport companies in the ‘Maoist affected rural areas’. On 5th of June the Times of India reported: “Hundreds of landless villagers have taken control of 210 bighas vested land in Khanpur village of Murarai on the Jharkhand border. Men armed with axes, scythes and sticks stood guard as their comrades plowed the land with tractors and sowed paddy seeds"…


The impoverishment of the proletariat in the mining areas, the destructive character of the industry and the repressive nature of the state regime clearly show the NECESSITY for social transformation towards a class-less society – but only the productive collectivity of the working class can express the POTENTIAL for creating this different society. In Dhanbad area the borderlines between ‘impoverishment of the proletariat’ and ‘social productivity of the working class’ are blurry, but they exist and their over-coming poses the major challenge for a class movement. In other terms: the divisions between different segments of the working-class cannot be done away with by mere preaching of a ‘class position’. With the trap of regionalism out of the way and internationalism imposed by the industrial set-up itself the proletariat can start from its different conditions and find common trajectories in their actions. Let’s document and debate our experiences – here ‘old’ organisations like the RSP(ML) – or rather their communist working class militants – are put to the test.



  5. Interesting documentary on Dhanbad (—Dhanbad-s-Dons)
  7. Work and Time: The Everyday Lives of the Jharia Coalfield Mazdoors,
    1890s-1970s – Mr. Dhiraj Kumar Nite
  8. Interesting document on situation in coal belts in 1958:
  9. Nationalisation by Default: The Case of Coal in India Rajiv Kumar
  10. Chhattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh was formed on 3 March 1977 at Dalli Rajhara in southern Durg district.
  11. DHANBAD Miners’ Fight against Imposters, Amiya Rao, (December 12, 1981)
  12. Class and Tribe in Jharkhand Nirmal Sengupta (EPW 1980)
  13. Jharkhand Movement, January 10, 1976 (EPW)

From GurgaonWorkersNews June/July 2011 – Report from Dhanbad Coal Fields