By Sneha Gupta
“Come with me, big brother Nimai,
Down into the mine’s crisscrossing tunnels.
Cutting coal fatigues me so,
And it still cannot erase
This ravenous hunger in my belly.” 1
Women have played an integral role in coal production during colonial India’s war efforts during the 20th century. Yet in historical narratives their struggles, achievements and resistance has been conveniently left out. This article aims to present their contribution in an attempt to rediscover and reconstruct histories as they occurred, and to understand the pivotal role women have played, especially in spaces that are commonly acknowledged to be masculine.
In the early 20th century coal was mined manually in India owing to the lack of machinery. Thus, coal production was entirely labour intensive, and more than a third of the labour force was female. ‘Coal, a linchpin of the War effort, rested on the keystone of female labour’.2 Most of these women were from a low caste or were adivasi women, who were (and continue to be) rendered voiceless by not only their gender but their socio-economic status as well.3
The largest coal-belts in India were located in Jharia (present day Jharkhand) and unpredictably enough: the condition of these coal-belts were abysmal. The miner’s quarters were poorly ventilated, cramped and filthy; essentially making them warehouses of diseases like smallpox, cholera and leprosy. Illnesses during childbirth were the norm. There were no bathrooms and the only water accessible to the workers was unsanitary. 4 Men and women worked to meet the demands of the British Raj in these deplorable conditions.
In 1937, a law was passed prohibiting women from working underground in the coal mines, as a humanitarian legislation. Superficially, this would be considered a step in the right direction. However, the reality, as always, was a lot more complicated. First, this prohibition came into effect only because British industry owners realised that while they could afford machines, Indian owners couldn’t and for women to be restricted from working would axiomatically lead to wiping out their competetion. Second, there were no measures in place to rehabilitate these women, conveniently dismissing their lived realities. The average family income decreased by 40% and there was a consequent rise of sex work. Infact, the only evidently good thing that came out of this manipulative legislature was the ‘decline in the opiating of children’, who no longer accompanied their mothers to the coal-mines.5 This prohibition made the British look good on humanitarian welfare grounds. In reality, however, this tokenistic initiative adopted to supposedly help these women, made things considerably worse for them, depriving them of any income or economic agency.
It is with the backdrop of the Second World War, that the central role of women in war efforts becomes even more prominent. In 1943, the Indian Government promised a massive amount of coal to Britain and it was commonly realised that this would be entirely impossible without women being re-employed in the coal mines. Thus, by the end of 1943, the prohibition of women working underground was lifted in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa.6 The very same organisations that had ensured that women would no longer work underground as it was considered “inhuman”, conveniently looked the other way when the prohibition was lifted, as the coal crisis became the main priority.
Before the prohibition of 1937, approximately 60,000 women worked day and night in coal mines, making it one of the largest employment opportunities for women. While the conditions of the coal mines were pathetic, coal mining and production was essentially one of their only viable means of sustenance. After this ill-considered and unsympathetic prohibition, some 40,000 women were eliminated from the labour force.7 There were almost no alternatives for these women to lean back on for income generation, thereby deteriorating their already impoverished conditions.
At this juncture, there are no traceable accounts and stories of sexual violence carried out in the coalmines. However, it is safe to say that their voiceless and helpless status may have made them easy targets of sexual violence. There is information on the high consumption of cheap alcohol, which unfortunately more often than not leads to sexual and domestic violence against women. Another suggestive indicator of vulnerability to sexual violence is the fact that sex work increased drastically, after the prohibition of women working in coalmines. Sex work was the only other viable alternative for them at the time. Thus, sex work to these women was less of a choice and more of a necessity. This translated song of coal miners, gives us reason to believe that women were vulnerable to sexual violence in the coal mines:
‘So hard is the loader’s work
My voice I cannot lift,
Make a good potato curry, dear wife,
Off I go for the night shift.
The officer grows fatter
The in-charge is a perfect hoax,
Our sardar [supervisor], the shorty,
Drives us hard, the working folks.
For us black dust comes for free,
Beware of the lecherous sardar the shorty,
Keep the doors shut, dear wife.
Colliery work is so harsh
The shoulders swell in pain
Sweating drowns body and soul.
Make a good potato curry, dear wife.’8
Other than these traces of evidence, there have been no efforts to understand the sexual violence that these women must have been victims of. I hope this account inspires researchers to dig deep into the histories of coal mines in India and successfully share the hardships these women have endured, that have been completely eliminated in the historical narratives present today.
Even though there were only negligible efforts made to capture any qualitative accounts of these women, the unrest and consequent government response that followed was sufficient proof of the integral role women played in the resistance. Strikes continued till April 1947, and the only initiatives made to curb the strikes were women-central. For instance, patches of land began to be identified as vegetable gardens where women were to be employed. Even though literally everything was pushing these women down, they courageously stood their ground.
While this narration of their histories might not be exhaustive, what becomes completely obvious is that women were treated as disposable, invisible peripheries of the society, being employed and dismissed from employment as and when desired. Through their oppressive histories, these women were caught in the middle of political, economic, and humanitarian crossfires; while their concerns, opinions and realities were neglected all-together. Further, they did not surrender despite the numerous hardships that came their way. Instead, they occupied instrumental positions in the resistance and unrest. Only recently, did I come across the grave situation that is the present day reality for coal miners in Jharia; who have no other alternative but to go to work in coal mines where a dangerous fire has been burning for decades.9 This recent discovery only makes the need to understand the predicament of coal miners even more urgent. Surprisingly resonant for borrowed experiences, their histories have hopefully made us realise that there is a pressing need to rediscover the histories of generations of women who have shown unfathomable strength; stories that we must proactively learn to remember.
1Khaitan, U. (2019) translates a song quoted in Banerjee’s ‘Coal Industry’, p. 28
2 Khaitan, U. (2019), p. 94
3 Alexander, P. (2016)
4 Simeon, D. (1996)
5 Simeon, D. (1996), p. 102
6 Khaitan, U. (2019)
7 Khaitan, U. (2020)
8 Khaitan, U. (2019), p. 24
9 BBC news website
Alexander, P (2007) ‘Women and Coal Mining in India and South Africa’, African Studies, 66 (2), pp. 201-222. DOI: 10.1080/00020180701482701
Khaitan, U. (2019) Women beneath the Surface: Coal and The Colonial State in India, 1920s-1940s.
Khaitan, U. (2020) Women beneath the Surface: Coal and the Colonial State in India during the Second World War, War & Society, 39:3, 171-188, DOI: 10.1080/07292473.2020.1790473
Simeon, D. (1996) ‘International Review of Social History’, Studies in the History of Partial Proletarianization, 41(4), pp. 83-108. Cambridge University Press.
BBC news (Photographer: Ronny Sen): https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-37426714