October 14, 2011 / 4:48 PM / 7 years ago

Photo exhibition reveals life in India's coal belt

LONDON (Reuters) - In a filthy pit, straining his body as he hacks ash from the ground, the image of a man captured in a black and white photograph represents the working conditions of many laborers in coal-rich northeast India.

A laborer living in East Bussuria village returning home after loading trucks with coal. He comes from a poor community of migrant workers and has been working as a labourer for over 20 years. He and his children are also manual laborers. Photo taken in Dhanbad, Jharkhand state, northeast India. REUTERS/Srinivas Kuruganti/Handout

The picture is one of several being exhibited in London this month by photographer Srinivas Kuruganti, illustrating life in Jharkland state, where underground fires sparked by coal mining have raged for nearly a century and displaced communities.

Kuruganti’s fascination with the impacts of coal mining in northeast India started with a short bus ride he took in 1999, from the city of Varanasi to a small town called Chandasi, the biggest coal depot in Asia.

“Hundreds of men and women spend all day shoveling and carrying coal in and out of trucks,” he said.

“The air is so thick with fine particles of coal dust that all shops, houses and roads are coated black. I spent a few days there but was left feeling that there was more I wanted to know.”

His striking photographs form part of “Shifting Landscapes,” an exhibition which also depicts the fast-changing landscapes of China through the lenses of husband and wife photographers Max and Liz Haarala Hamilton.


Despite its rampant industry, Jharkhand is one of India’s poorest states, with Kuruganti citing estimates that more than half the state does not have access to clean drinking water. World Bank data from 2007 showed 59 percent of children there were malnourished.

Another of Kuruganti’s exhibited photos, showing two people perched on the edge of a dumpsite carrying baskets, depicts another aspect of life in the coal belt. Locals in the city climb down perilously dangerous slopes of dumpsites collecting coal, which they rely on for heating and fuel.

Elsewhere in Jharkhand, uprooting families in the town of Jharia, underground coalfield fires have burned since the early 20th century.

Mining in India displaced about 2.6 million people between 1950 and 1991, according to a 2008 report by the Center for Science and Environment in India. Fewer than a quarter of them have been rehabilitated, the report added.

Unregulated mining in Jharkland state has converted forests into wastelands and made the region uninhabitable for the local people from the Adivasi tribal group, who rely largely on the forests for sustenance, Kuruganti said. According to estimates over a million Adivasis were displaced between 1950 and 2000, he added.

“You look at who pays the price for economic development,” said Kuruganti. “It’s always the people in the village, by being displaced, or their land is taken away.”

The exhibition, which is in conjunction with east London photography festival “Photomonth,” runs from Oct 15-30 at London’s Gallery S O.

Editing by Emma Batha and Paul Casciato

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