wallahs_280Wobbling and pushing their bikes laden high with stolen coal, the Coal Cycle Wallahs slowly make their way through rural Jharkhand’s steep and twisting forest roads.

Home to the largest coal belt in Asia, Jharkhand has been plagued by poverty, lawlessness, bad governance and corruption for over half a century. It is also, however, home to the vast majority of India’s rich mineral deposits. India’s government owns everything underground and all coal mines are state-controlled. It is unlikely that the Coal Cycle Wallahs of Jharkhand will face the opportunity to benefit from India’s predicted rise to becoming the world’s third largest economy over the next 25 years.

The Coal Cycle Wallahs and the work they do are a stark illustration of poverty in the midst of rich fossil fuel resource abundance. They come from the remote and extremely poor East Indian states of Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal. Jharkhand in particular generates more than two thirds of India’s electricity. Yet despite its great mineral wealth, few of Jharkhand’s 30 million, mainly tribal inhabitants, see any of the financial benefits mining has brought to the state.

With very few jobs available in the state owned mines, the Coal Cycle Wallahs must scavenge coal from illegal coal mines. They frequently load up to 300kg of coal into jute bags and then through the frames of their stong, steel reinforced bicycles. The teetering, heavily laden bicycles are then pushed by the Wallahs who strain under their weight. They travel up steep roads and through Maoist controlled forests, pushing these coal loads often for days at a time. The men travel in groups to avoid trouble, it’s incredibly strenuous work and they help each other on the biggest hills. When they eventually reach the state capital, Ranchi, the coal is sold to individual households. Dependence on coal for domestic use is high, the small stoves in villagers homes called “cholis” belch out thick black smoke, contributing to to respiratory problems and poor health. When the coal is sold, the Coal Cycle Walllahs replace the chains of their bicycles and make the return journey back to the mine in order to start the process again. It’s incredibly hard and labour-intensive work, many of the men suffer from respiratory and rheumatic problems. Most of them look older than their years after a lifetime of hard manual labour and chronic malnutrition.

Few employment alternatives are available to these men in Jharkhand. They do the work because there is no other. It is estimated that every year in India, up to five million tonnes of coal is illegally mined and distributed in this way. As India’s economy grows, all eyes will be on Delhi. Many green pledges have been made regarding air quality and green energy. India’s continued reliance on coal as a cheap, readily available and yet highly polluting fossil fuel is fast increasing. Coal is the dirtiest fuel on the planet and India is estimated to become the world’s third highest CO2 producer by 2030.

The Coal Cycle Wallahs claim they are not thieves, and are not stealing coal. Mine owners are bribed to turn a blind eye to these activities and the Coal Wallahs depend on this grey market for their livelihoods. Each bicycle of coal provides the Wallah with approximately Rs300 profit, £4. His three-day round trip will amount to just enough to feed his family. The Coal Cycle Wallahs are unlikely to ever benefit from India’s economic growth. They scrape by a living, collecting this ‘black gold’ under the ever watchful eyes of east India’s Coal Mafia whilst corrupt officials pocket the rewards.

As India heads into an ever growing coal powered future, the life of the Coal Cycle Wallahs, like that of the majority of India’s 800 million rural population, will continue to subsist off the small pickings left behind.

Words and photographs by Sophie Gerrard.

New Photo film on the Coal Cycle Wallahs by Sophie Gerrard – http://sophiegerrard.com/SophiePhotofilm02.html