Recently, on a particularly cold night in Ranchi, I was walking down the highway on the way home from an evening at the Royal Retreat. The Royal Retreat is Ranchi’s response to the demand for swanky new hangouts for the burgeoning upper class. It’s a nice spot, but with the out of place décor and bizarre extravagance that makes you feel like Pablo Escobar’s color-blind interior decorator had a hand in its design. On the way home from the club I passed a familiar sight along the road. In the same spot every night tethered like a herd of squat, lumpy buffalo stands dozens of bicycles heavily laden with sacks of coal blackened by soot and road grime. Around the bikes is another familiar sight: Their owners asleep beneath the overhang of a nearby building resting until morning when they can start their journeys again. During the day one of the first things you’ll notice travelling north on the highway from Ranchi to Ramgarh, a small military outpost about 60Kms outside the city, are these men on the side of the road straining under huge loads of coal as trucks, buses, and cars wiz by. Out of curiosity I started asking around to the details surrounding this lifestyle. The following is second hand information that I gathered from mostly reliable sources, although I don’t deny some of it might be a bit off the mark.
It all started back in the early 1990’s. As Jharkhand, then Bihar, started to ramp up its coal mining industry, the government started to crack down on small scale independent mining that had until then not been addressed. One day, two men were caught taking coal from a government owned mine. The people in the surrounding area became furious when it seemed that the men would be prosecuted. They demanded a solution from the government that allowed them to still have limited access to the mines. It was then that a high-ranking government official stepped in and offered what was essentially a gentlemen’s agreement. He said that although taking coal from the mines would remain illegal, the government would allow it to continue but with few stipulations. First, a person could only take from the mines what they could load onto a single bicycle. Second, they could only transport the coal under their own power, ie no cars, scooters, trucks, etc. They also capped at 100 the number of people allowed to do this at any given time. This was agreed upon as a fair compromise and the operation has continued under these new rules ever since.
Win for the miners, right? No, not exactly. The coalmines are in Ramgarh, 60Kms from Ranchi. Ranchi is 700m higher in elevation than Ramgarh. At the mines the coal is taken by hand and then loaded into burlap sacks. Each bike, when packed efficiently, weighs a little over 100kg. There’s no room to sit and coasting with this big a load is difficult. The journey takes two days and with the expansion of the highway and 24 hr a-day traffic has become increasingly dangerous. Each bike load of coal goes for between 800-1000 rupees, depending on where it is finally sold and to whom. If you factor the bribes one has to pay for this nominally illegal act, what’s left is not a lot.
Yet apparently these jobs are still in high demand. Clearly, these men don’t represent a cadre of fledging entrepreneurs whose only roadblock to financial independence is some grit, hard work, and the stick-to-it-iveness. It’s people trying to scrape a living together in the informal economy because there’s no alternative. In the United States, a small- business owner is the essence of the American Dream. Here in India it’s a life mostly fraught with risk, where the consequences of one sickness or poor investment can leave you powerless and financially destitute. This coal-mining gig is the very definition of a dead end job, and better system’s need to be created than loosely binding verbal contracts so that jobs like these are no longer considered gainful employment.