This social documentary photography was submitted to Edge of Humanity Magazine by Photographer and Journalist Erberto Zani.
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Images from the book “Black World” by Erberto Zani.
Coal in Jharkhand
It is a dark world that millions of people are forced to work in, made of mines, dust and fear. Characterized by oppression, violence and trampled human rights; where the presence of enormous deposits of minerals transform into a curse for the people through the illegality caused by games of power and corrupt economies.
Jharkand, a region in Northeast India. One of the poorest countries in the world, in terms of income per capital, with an extremely high illiteracy rate, a lack of basic infrastructures, and where the access to drinking water is reserved for the fortunate few.
And yet the subsoil, within a radius of 450 kilometers is rich in carbon; a huge furnace that constantly burns. For the Indian economy it is a huge resource, considering that two-thirds of the electricity used in the whole country is generated by this material. It is calculated that 29% of national reserves, over 72 milliards of tons, are concentrated in this area.
From over a century coal has been extracted from this area, especially around the cities of Dhanbadm, Jharia and Catras. In last few decades however, due to the demanding energetic hunger of new colossal markets such as China and indeed India, mining extractions have risen to an exorbitant level of 80 million tons every year. The entire sector is in the hands of Coal India Limited, one of the biggest national companies in the country. In Jharkhand though, along with the state-owned company, seven private companies owned by local families have arisen. They have also been entrusted the task of checking and managing, using armed personnel, the areas in which the carbon sink has been divided.
Bokahapadi is a small village inside the extraction zone. A shanty-town made from recovered materials, roofs in plastic, clay floors, no sanitation and no drinking water. Even the number of its habitants is uncertain because no government has ever carried out a census. Someone guesses a number, 800 people, others say more than a thousand. They have lived here for generations.
Once again, the presence of an important mineral underground has turned out to be a curse for those who should, by right, be the main beneficiaries. The landscape is bleak and disheartening. The black dust, which remains in the air reduces the sunlight, creating a strange mix of clouds and fog. Toxic gases escape from the soil infiltrating everything with methane and carbon monoxide. It is not by coincidence that the most of the people in this area suffer from serious respiratory problems.
But in Bokahapadi, before their own health, people have to worry about how they will survive day after day. The only hope in getting a job is to be hired by one of the big companies. Unfortunately only the healthiest men are hired, while the majority of the population is forced to find alternative ways to survive. Every day they dig and illegally collect coal to use for cooking, heating, or to resell it for very few rupees (a few euro cents) on the black market in Dhanbad, the nearest city approximately 10 Kilometers away.
It is a paradox that the legitimate owners of the land, those who have lived here forever and literally live on top of a huge resource that generates billions of dollars every year, are forced to steal small amounts of coal, risking arrest, or being killed by private soldiers.
With the blessing of the Government, the big companies decided to clear out the inhabitants at any cost: in the beginning offering them modern homes built from reinforced concrete, in reality the houses offered were crumbling buildings without electricity and sanitation, then using the hard way, accusing them of stealing the state’s coal, tiny quantities found with their bare hands. Every day at dawn, before the bulldozers and huge trucks begin to work, entire families arrive at the many extraction sites, over 70. Their lives pass by amidst combustion flames and toxic gases. Without work and without rights, these families have no possibility to live a better future.
Some “miners”, the bravest or the most desperate, descend into unsafe tunnels wearing only shorts and slippers to retrieve coal directly from the main deposits. The risk of being buried alive under a landslide or to die from asphyxiation is extremely high. On the surface the material is then broken up using makeshift tools, pickaxes, or simply using iron bars. While the men work on this part, the women and children carry the rocks in wicker baskets up the steep hills from the mine to the village. A single basket can weigh up to 20 Kilograms. Child labor is common in Jharkhand, as it is in the whole of India; there are more that 12 million children used in dangerous activities causing serious damage to health, physical and mental development. In Bokahapadi it is disturbing to see that there are so few elderly people but lots of children; people die here very young, their lives being consumed like coal in the flames.
Despite the large number of people that every day extract baskets full of coal, the quantity taken is very small, especially when compared to the hundreds of tons moved by the mechanical machines of the big industries.
Since 2012, I started a photo-reportage on illegal mineral extractions around the world.
BLACK WORLD is the name of my first photo book on illegal mineral extractions and created as a tryptych: three continents (South America, Africa, Asia), three countries (Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, India), three illegally extracted minerals (gold, coltan, coal), three causes that lead to criminality.
In Columbia, in a remote area of Antioquia, a community of gold miners have been struggling to fight for its own existence for years, asking the government to legalize the mine. This request amidst the dangers of working underground with inadequate equipment and under definite threat of being killed by paramilitary groups.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the words “Republic” and “Democratic” sound like the countless scars inflicted on its civil population, politics is administered on the basis of corruption and favoritism. A country where the absence of government, the division of power between different military groups and the intrusion of shameless and unethical foreign interests have caused a complete military arming of the economy and a real marketing of violence. In this chaos the natural resources, particularly coltan, become oxygen for the smouldering embers of war.
Finally, in India, where the population of Bokohapadi is forced to steal its own coal found underground. This, because of industrial-scaled extraction projects run by government-aided companies, categorically without acknowledging or compensating the rightful owners of the land.
The book aims to be a testimony, a voice so not to forget the “invisibles”; those who are not considered as part of history with a capital “H”, but simply try to escape being crushed by the wave of progress, often represented by interests without moral conscience.
The photographs gathered for “Black World” were taken during various journeys between 2012 and 2015. In the studio during post-production, it was decided to use a “dirty” black and white theme, combined with unusual cuts; the aim was to emphasize the feeling of oppression and suffocating that epitomizes the existence of the people concerned.
By Erberto Zani