TOM PIETRASIK | Photographer


with 14 comments

Women wait for taxis to take them home after a day of scavenging for coal outside the Parej open cast mine.
Jharkhand, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2010

At the beginning of the year, while eating breakfast one morning in Ranchi, the capital of India’s Jharkhand state, I picked up a copy of the Hindustan Times newspaper. At the top of the front page, under a headline that read, “New Year’s gift for Bokaro: Second steel plant”, correspondent Sanjay Sahay wrote,

“Bokaro is a city, where a majority of the population, either directly or indirectly, depends on the Bokaro Steel Plant (BSL) for a living. Not surprising then that union Steel Minister Virbhadra Singh’s announcement on Friday that they would consider setting up a second steel plant in the city inspired a lot of enthusiasm and hope.”

As chance would have it, I visited Bokaro the day before Sahay’s article was published. I was there to photograph those living and working around the Tata open-cast coal mine that neighbours the steel plant mentioned in his report. According to Sahay then, I should have come across a lot of enthusiasm and hope among this population who either directly or indirectly [depend] on the Bokaro Steel Plant for a living.

Labourers ferry coke to a local distribution point outside an illegal mine in Hazaribagh district.
Jharkhand, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2010

But I didn’t. Instead I was confronted by a poor and dejected community, eking out a living on the fringes of a mine that employes few local residents. I saw women collecting coal as lumps of it toppled from the huge trucks exiting the mines. Close by, families living in grotty hovels, were selling plastic bottles of petrol to passing motor vehicles. This was trickle down economics at work, honouring those who’ve been forced to sacrifice their land in the name of growth.

Sipping my morning tea and persevering with Sahay’s article, I glanced across to the sidebar that ran alongside his words. Beneath the lofty headline, “DEVELOPMENT KNOCKS ON BOKARO’S DOOR”, was a list of planned local education and health initiatives. Upon closer inspection it was apparent that there was no substance to any of these projects. The Hindustan Times had simply regurgitated aspirations that the Government “… would seriously consider starting a medical college in Bokaro” or “SAIL (a steel company) would take a decision on establishing another degree college here.”

A family sell petrol to motor vehicles on an approach road to the Tata coal mine at West Bokaro.
Jharkhand, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2010

When I mentioned the Hindustan Times article to Xavier Dias of BIRSA, an indigenous people’s group, a couple of days later, his rather bleak response was that, “The extraction of minerals is a guarantee that an area will never be developed.” The tragedy is that Jharkhand desperately needs development. With only a quarter of indigenous Adivasi women able to read and an annual per capita income of just $330, there is every need for investment in local communities.

For those that pull the strings of power however, talk of development is simply a means to an end. Health and education projects matter only to the extent that mentioning them helps placate the public. Development aspirations are a tool in much the same cynical way that the specter of a Maoist takeover can be used to justify the removal of obstinate communities from their land.

There are plenty of people with a personal interest in sustaining the injustice of mineral extraction in Jharkhand. Some of them are occasionally found out. Like Jharkhand’s former chief minister Madhu Koda who currently resides in jail, charged with laundering $1.2 billion from the granting of mining licenses. Despite evidence of such shocking abuse of power, disingenuous journalists like Sahay perpetuate a myth by presenting mining companies, their industry associates and their friends in government as as benevolent brokers, bestowing largess upon a grateful public.

An indigenous Adivasi woman outside the Tata coal mine at West Bokaro collects coal as it
falls from passing trucks.
Jharkhand, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2010

Abroad too, newspapers sustain this fiction by failing to acknowledge the hopeless conditions forced on people like those I photographed in Bokaro. When Arundhati Roy considers the “genocidal potential” of mining, The Economist newspaper rebuts her by quoting an Indian finance ministry report that declares, “High growth is critical to generate the revenues needed for meeting our social welfare objectives.” This is a cynical and lazy response when the Indian Government’s meagre spending on health and education pales alongside burgeoning revenue.

If the wealth of mineral extraction is funding social welfare spending, The Economist should ask why ordinary rural communities, like those I met in Jharkhand’s Karanpura valley, persist in a six year struggle to keep coal mining companies and thermal power plants from their land. And too why resistance groups like Jharkhand Mines Area Coordination Committee would sooner face imprisonment than capitulate to myths about development. People living in places like the Karanpura valley are not stupid. They have seen their mineral wealth shipped out to benefit others. They understand better than anyone else that local communities must be at the forefront of the decision making process if they are ever to challenge the powerful interests that exploit Jharkhand’s wealth and continue to deny human rights to those who are being forced from their land.

You can see more of my photographs of Jharkhand’s coalfields on my webstite here.

The Tata open cast coal mine at West Bokaro. Few of those employed at the mine are
from the locally displaced Adivasi community.
Jharkhand, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2010

Of course exploitation in mining isn’t confined to India. Markus Bleasdale’s shocking photo essay, “The Rape of a Nation”, documenting how mining has shaped the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is displayed on the Burn website here.

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Written by Tom Pietrasik

March 7, 2010 at 3:30 pm

14 Responses

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  1. Out of sight is considered out of mind. I hope that these powerful images will be the eye opener.

    Mumbai Paused

    March 14, 2010 at 11:43 am

    • Indeed. I think we all have an obligation to look around us and to understand what goes on in our name. Thanks for your interest.

      Tom Pietrasik

      March 15, 2010 at 8:56 am

  2. […] Photographs & a bit on the issue of land dis-possession of ‘tribals’: Published […]

  3. […] they spend on enhancing our lives. Now, head over to see and read this excellent photo essay at Tom Pietrasik’s blog on the reality of mining in India. […]

  4. Totally agree with you here Tom & good work with the photos. Pictures can often bring out the gravity of the situation much better than long essays.. and i hope more such photos are clicked and displayed all over so that the city middle class will see the shallowness in the inspirational speeches of development given by industry heads & their media friends…


    March 16, 2010 at 11:23 am

    • Lash, I agree that photographs are a powerful tool for raising awareness. I think photographs are at their most effective when used alongside words to, as you say, “bring out the gravity of a situation”.

      Tom Pietrasik

      March 16, 2010 at 12:00 pm

  5. what bothers me is that media is so irresponsible these days. HT isn’t the first paper or the writer mentioned above the first journalist to publish mis-informed articles.. Credibility has become such a rare commodity…i think its fair to have difference of opinions. but to conjure up an opinion and then to present itself as a fact is just not right.

    jyothy karat

    March 16, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    • Jyothy, you raise a significant point. For newspapers to remain credible sources of information and informed opinion, we must be confident that they are willing to scrutinize the views of those who have an interest in propagating misinformation. By presenting an industry press release as fact – as appears to be the case here – the Hindustan Times has certainly compromised its own credibility.

      This all reminds me of a story recounted by my friend and Independent South Asia correspondent, Andy Buncombe, upon the launch of the much revered Tata Nano motorcar a couple of years ago. Many will recall the near-universal fanfare – both in India and abroad – that met the launch of the US$2,500 “Peoples Car” by Ratan Tata, head of the Tata motor company.

      At the press conference accompanying the Nano launch, Andy stuck his hand up to ask Mr Tata a question. Recalling his own treacherous journey to the event, Andy wondered whether Mr Tata had contemplated the idea that the Nano might be last thing Indian commuters needed. As Andy recalled to me, his question was met with consternation among gathered journalists. It was as though he had committed and act of blasphemy against an industry leader who was apparently beyond reproach.

      If journalists aren’t willing to ask the questions, it makes you wonder who is!

      For more of Andy Buncombe’s entertaining and unflinching insights, check out his blog here.

      Tom Pietrasik

      March 16, 2010 at 3:43 pm

  6. Good photo essay Tom. Those opposing development are a cornered lot in Incredible India today. Articles such as yours provide much needed support.
    I would like to post/ link this on with your permission

    Sanat Mohanty

    March 21, 2010 at 11:16 am

    • I am not opposed to development but any discussion on the subject must ask what kind of development and for whom. Thanks for your interest, I would be very happy for you to link to this post on

      Tom Pietrasik

      March 21, 2010 at 1:04 pm

  7. Excellent photo-essay Tom.I wonder why such things don’t come out of the terribly self righteous Indian media.
    I come from Hazaribag,Jharkhand and I have my ancestral home there.I have lived in Delhi for quite some time and will return after finishing my higher studies.
    The out of sight thing (in the first response) is so true that it made me feel sad all over.Right from my childhood I have seen Jharkhand being raped and pillaged by assorted thugs and pimps both in and out of the system.And when I out to “India”, for most people this state doesn’t even exist!!
    I guess it will matter a bit in case the trains ferrying out the tremendous natural wealth of this hapless state to other states “closer”
    to the power centres stop somehow.
    We have started believing that minerals have are actually a curse for our state.And we seriously think that as a state it’s actually going back…and Naxalism is a very convenient excuse for the government to explain it’s lack of interest in the development of this “expendable” state.
    To give you an example of Goverment apathy…I will take the example of the National Highway 33 that’s considered the lifeline of Jharkhand and it connects Bihar to Jharkhand.It’s the safest way to travel through this state ,a state where more or less all districts are more under Maoist control.For the last 8-9 months this road has been non functional for all practical purposes.At one place near Kuju(another minig town in Hazaribag) due to illegal underground mining done by people in powerful goverment and political positions the highway erupted in flames and was closed down.It’s still closed and till now procrastination,blame games etc etc continue.The “diversion” that was “made” is so treacherous that it has already claimed lives.Meanwhile helicopters fly over this area ferrying “important” people and ambassadors with red beacon lights flashing,with cops in tow shooing away “ornery” people making way for “Sahebs” and “Babus” who join the system for developing such areas, rumble by.
    Life goes on…..
    At another place on the same highway just as one get’s out of Hazaribag town…there’s a bridge over Siwane that’s been out of bounds for traffic for about 6-7 months because it couldn’t be repaired till date.And the diversion has been strategically created just at the level of the river so that it can get washed off in the monsoons.And thousands of heavy vehicles mostly containing the precious loot from illegal mining in the area ply over this highway everyday..not counting the buses and cars and other vehicles.The overall travelling time on this route has increased by hours.And once the diversions give way the time taken to go from Hazaribag town to the railway station at Koderma will be increased from less than an hour to more than 3-4 hrs.
    So much so for lack of development because of “hostile” environs.
    If such ham handed approach wont generate hostility what will?

    Dr Kunal Kaushik

    May 10, 2010 at 11:27 pm

    • Thanks Dr. Kaushik. You have to wonder where the wealth of Jharkhand’s mines goes when road-diversions like those you mention at Kuju and Siwane so cripple the state. I drove across Kuju’s flaming road while photographing for this story. It was an eerie experience crossing at night with smoke drifting up through fractures in the asphalt. I’ve no doubt that it was incredibly dangerous. But the thought of a crack opening up and swallowing us didn’t appear to concern my driver. As you say, life has to go on for the ordinary people of Jharkhand.

      Tom Pietrasik

      June 16, 2010 at 10:50 pm

  8. Hi Tom,
    Congrats on the way you have captured the poverty and utter helplessness of the natives of the state. However, I am curious as to why you are blaming HT for reporting the fact that a new mining set up would be developed? Isnt utilising an area’s mineral wealth the proper way to develop an area? One may argue with the way outsiders come and abuse the locals but development as such shouldn’t be a bad language.


    June 27, 2010 at 5:21 pm

    • Anshul, thanks for your interest in my blog post on mining in Jharkhand and taking the time to comment. In my view the Hindustan Times has a responsibility to investigate the development claims of mining companies by weighing those claims against the experience of local people in areas like Bokaro. Had the Hindustan Times done so, they would have seen the poverty you describe in my photographs and concluded that mining does not bring development. The question is not whether development in these areas is right or wrong but whether there is any development. There is not.

      Tom Pietrasik

      June 28, 2010 at 3:02 pm

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