JHARIA , India — Dr. Jyoti Sinha is a sociologist and ethnographer by training; she teaches at UMass Boston, specializing in labor and gender issues. Having grown up in an industrial town in India, she focuses her research on safety and labor standards in the garment sector of South Asian countries. The Borgen Project had the opportunity to speak with Professor Sinha about her fieldwork conducted on women coal miners in the Jharkhand state of India. As citizens of one of the poorest countries in the world and the world’s third-largest coal-producing nation, workers in Indian coal mines face dreadful conditions, barely making enough to survive. Female workers bear the brunt of these conditions.
“I was very surprised to see the kind of environment that these miners work in on an everyday level,” Sinha said in an interview with The Borgen Project. “The underground fire on which the [mine]operates not only causes a severe environmental threat through emission of steam, smoke and noxious gases but also poses a serious health hazard to inhabitants.”
Health awareness in the area is very low, Sinha says. In the 1980s, due to dangerous fires underground, Jharia was declared an evacuation area; hundreds of thousands of residents were meant to be relocated, but this never happened, contributing to “increased … resistance of people towards being displaced, be it for mining or for ‘their own safety’ in order to escape the underground flames. There are no other means of livelihood in the displaced area … The existing fire scenario in Jharia Coalfield continues to be alarming,” Sinha says.
Moreover, the work setting is highly patriarchal; Sinha explains that women are regularly denied senior work positions. “Situated at the bottom of the wage and qualification scales, the women workers, in general, belong to low caste … Mining … is constructed in ways that enable men to assert a specific form of cultural masculinity. … Women workers are not trained … [for]office jobs.”
On top of these issues, women workers are highly susceptible to sexual abuse, and reports of rape are quite frequent. “If there is a single woman who is in a slightly better off position … the reason for her being in a better position … is that she gives sexual favors to her bosses. There is no respect and credit that women workers get at the coal mines. Drinking, again, is a very big problem [in the]coal mines,” Sinha says.
These women have no place to turn to for help; Sinha underlines the lack of health services. “The health services are there but it’s quite symbolic; there are no government hospital running in good condition, no medical care for workers who face severe cases of bronchitis, asthma and other respiratory diseases due to fumes and constant exposure to smokes and poisonous gases.”
Despite their poor treatment of women, the coal mines need these workers. “The coal mines cannot function without these women,” Sinha says.
— Marcelo Guadiana