My first experience of coal mining was in 1999 when I took a short bus ride from Varanasi to a small town called Chandasi, the biggest coal depot in Asia. The Mughalsarai train station, which is two kilometres from the depot, is used as a major hub for transporting coal from the mines. The two-lane highway is lined with depots of various sizes. Trucks are constantly on the move, taking coal to various distributors, factories, and consumers. Hundreds of men and women spend all day shovelling and carrying it in and out of trucks. The air is so thick with the resultant fine particles that all shops, houses and roads are covered in a black coat. 

I spent a few days there but was left feeling that there was a good deal more I wanted to know.

In 2001, I decided to go to Dhanbad to photograph the coal mining industry for a workshop. I spent about four to five weeks there, staying in a small hotel in the old market. During this period, I went on to spend considerable time in a village in East Bussuria, where there is a small colliery. The whole community is involved in loading and unloading trucks. Most are migrant workers from Bihar who settled in this area over 50 years ago.

During the periods that workers had little or no work, they would sleep on their jute cots in the afternoon heat and drink heavily at night. On those slow days, I would often sit with them and drink chai and they would talk about their lives. Children would play in the heaps of coal that had been stolen from the yards, or they would fly kites by the train tracks that ran directly in front of their village.

In 2010, I returned to Dhanbad. The standard of living of communities dotting the highway and villages close to the mines had not improved. More land had been eroded. Underground fires were spreading, further causing more damage to homes. Many houses had numbers marked on them as families were scheduled to be relocated 23 kilometres away. Most communities still do not have decent roads on which to travel to the market. The black dust envelops everything and more children suffer from pollution-related illnesses at an early age.

The mines continue to make massive profits, of which very little, if any, benefits local communities.

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Migrants and the local community living along the mining belt in Dhanbad rely on coal for fuel. Many sift through the dump sites to retrieve the waste scraps. They climb down the steep slopes of slag to gather a few baskets for their daily consumption.

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Open cast mines line either side of the road to Dhanbad. The miners just gouge the surface to get at the coal, a cheap method that destroys the landscape.
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Police patrol the mining belt, looking for illegal mines.

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A labourer carries waste from the washery to load on to trucks.
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A coal washery, where the soil and rocks are removed from the ore. Coal is then sorted according to size and grade.
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A coal washery, where the soil and rocks are removed from the ore. Coal is then sorted according to size and grade.

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Most of the buildings in Dhanbad wear a coat of black dust.
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Contract workers are paid by the day and many are employed to load coal into trucks for private companies. India is the third largest producer of coal in the world, and it accounts for over 60 per cent of India’s energy requirements. It is estimated that reserves are likely to last over 100 years.

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Naturally-occurring coal has the tendency to burn spontaneously, and can continue to do so for years. In other areas, underground fires started more than 90 years ago when private companies began mining there. Many communities have abandoned their homes and relocated to less polluted areas.

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The coal is shovelled in and out of trucks that carry it to factories and other distributors.

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Most of the children in this village do not have the opportunity to attend school, and many do the same work as their parents.
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Coal being smoked to release the ash so that it can produce higher temperatures when it burns.

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The burning coal releases heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, selenium, and hexavalent chromium, all highly toxic substances.
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Women and men from Bussuria village are employed as daily wage labourers. Their days are spent loading trucks and train wagons with coal extracted from the East Bussuria colliery.

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Daily labourers at the Chandasi coal yards, the largest in Asia.
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Children in the area suffer from pollution-related diseases, and more are affected every year.

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The son of a coal miner in his home near the mines.