Ranchi : Jharkhand resident Bharno Devi's husband died three years ago while extracting coal from an abandoned mine. Her son now does the same for a living.
Bharno worries endlessly that her son may suffer the same fate as her husband, but she can't show her tears to the administration or police as she fears they might turn against her for illegal mining.
"When my husband died, I had to hide my tears, fearing police action," said Bharno.
There are hundreds of miners who court death every day by extracting coal from abandoned mines, which is an illegal activity. According to an estimate, more than 500 people have lost their lives in such mines in the past 10 years.
"We have no option but to extract coal and sell it in the market. This is our only means of livelihood. If we stop extracting coal from abandoned mines, our families will starve to death. Instead of facing hunger, it is better to face death while arranging food for the family," said Bharat Kumar, a resident of Ramgarh in Hazaribagh district.
Jharkhand has more 100 abandoned mines.
Coal companies to a large extent are responsible for the deaths in these mines. According to the norm, coal companies should fill these mines with sandbags to close them permanently, but most remain open and attract illegal miners.
Central Coalfields Ltd (CCL) and Bharat Coking Coal Ltd are two major state-owned companies that operate collieries in the state.
There is a big difference between mine workers who are on the roster of coal companies and those who extract illegally.
Among the former, if a miner dies in a mine accident, his family gets compensation such as a job, money, insurance, pension and other things. Ministers, officials and others turn up to pay homage to the dead miners.
But in the case of illegal miners, even family members are afraid to weep for fear of police action. Even the cremations are carried out secretly.
At some places, coal mafias are involved in illegal mining. They pay miners and smuggle coal out of the state. Everything takes place with the knowledge of police and officials of coal companies.
"The cases which are brought to the notice of police are investigated and suitable action is taken," said R.C. Kaithal, additional director general of police.
"There is no separate cell to deal with illegal mining. The district police chief takes up cases of illegal mining. And if the coal management is responsible enough, then the state government is informed about it."
But a CCL official said on condition of anonymity: "The company has lodged more than 100 cases in different police stations related to illegal mining but no action has been taken by police. "
Three years ago when Jharkhand Mukti Morcha chief Shibu Soren became central coal minister, he had planned to legalise mining in abandoned mines but the idea never translated into reality.