Thieves on Two Wheels

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The poor of Jharkhand depend on cycle peddlers for their coal—peddlers who, by law, are thieves
We meet Mahesh Munda at 2 am. Five bikes are lined up under a tree, stars overhead. At a power station in the distance, white lights flicker. Barking dogs occasionally break the peace. In another few hours, sparse birdsong will announce the dawn, with the early rays of the sun outlining jute bags on the frames of bicycles pushed along by Munda and his friends. Each cycle has about 250 kg of coal. And within the hour, hundreds of similar cycles would stream past. It is rush hour on the coal paths.

Shailendra, a freelance photographer, and I are travelling Jharkhand’s coal roads to explore the depth of India’s coal dependence. This is a land where bicycle tyre tracks can be traced from collection points out in jungles to drop spots on the edge of steel towns.

We are in Kathara, 45 km from Bokaro Steel City in Jharkhand. Munda is a part-time farmer and coal peddler. ‘“Paddy, wheat and vegetables only give me money half the year. But I can make at least Rs 80-100 each coal journey, all year round,” he says, flanked by his neighbours.

They carry coal four times a week. Munda is just one of an estimated 48,500 ‘coal cycle wallahs’ who peddle 1.4 million tonnes of coal by bike each year in Jharkhand alone. Men, women and children, coal cyclists typically push their coal loads on journeys that range from 30 km to 60 km. Ticking off the kilometres at a steady clip, they venture to villages and towns, selling this black rock fuel at around Rs 1 per kg, often delivering cut-price coal to the needy—some of them in industrial suburbs—for mothers to keep hearth and home together.

For many cycle peddlers, it’s a family trade: mothers, fathers and children are all involved in making deliveries. Our presence makes some of them nervous; they are worried we are undercover policemen out to bust them. They are reassured once we lend them a hand, helping them push their bag-laden bikes along. What Munda and his friends do is illegal. They gather their loads of coal from a mine owned by Coal India Ltd, India’s state-run coal monopoly that supplies most thermal power plants, steel mills and other factories. Ordinary folk, however, rely on this vast network of cycle peddlers who don’t just keep families supplied with their bagloads, but also small-time brick kilns, sponge iron factories, dhabas and chai stalls.

According to one estimate, around 90 per cent of all coal traded illegally in India has been stolen from mines and coal washeries. The rest is dug by hand at mines no longer commercially viable—abandoned but still owned by CIL, the world’s largest coal miner.

Jharkhand looms large in CIL’s scheme of things. As a state, it produces a third of all the coal mined in India, and companies bid for truckloads of it—10 tonnes a truck—at a time through electronic auctions. Yet, everyday folk who need coal for cooking and warmth—who cannot afford liquid petroleum gas (LPG) cylinders or kerosene—have no official market access to any of this mineral wealth.

Kathara’s colliery lies concealed behind a hill next to the Damodar river. By mid-morning, women have waded across with coal baskets on their heads. The towering peak of a reject coal mountain overlooks the river bank, where—in small mounds—men and women cook off part of the ash, thickening the air.

Sixty kilometres westward, at the Rajarappah Coal Washery of Central Coal Fields Ltd, a subsidiary of CIL, we trudge the mountainous reject piles of coal, careful not to trigger a mini landslide. But next to silos of freshly-laundered coal, where conveyor belts whir and thick black water is ejected, women in saris sift the rocks for hidden lumps of coal, heavy baskets perched on their heads. Each basket will fetch Rs 30 when sold to other Jharkhandis with bicycles.

But cycle wallahs are outlaws. Buying a bag of coal on a village or city street from one of these peddlers is illegal. All unofficial trade in coal—a nationally-owned resource—is proscribed by the Indian Penal Code, apart from laws governing forests and coal-bearing tracts. This makes these cycle wallahs the country’s largest criminalised community.

Coal is an important national resource. Nearly 60 per cent of India’s electricity is generated by coal-fired power stations. But CIL is unable to meet all of India’s coal demand. While the country is the world’s third largest coal producer, the Government spent $15.5 billion in 2012-13 importing 138 million tonnes of coal to fire a variety of industries. The Union Coal Ministry has long insisted that all coal be supplied to power plants and industry, effectively banning the sale of the fuel to households. For the past two decades, people have protested this inequity. But no one seems to listen.


Half of Jharkhand’s coal cycle wallahs are Scheduled Castes and Tribes. In fact, Jharkhand—the ‘land of forests’—is tribal country. Many have lived off the forests as gatherers of food or cultivators of stray patches of land. But 40 years of mass displacement, as forests were cleared for coal mines, has left up to 70 per cent of these coal cycle wallahs landless. Of those who still farm, 20 per cent have an acre of land or less.

Most of this excavatory expansion came with the nationalisation of coal companies in the 1970s. Before that, many of today’s coal peddlers used the same land for agriculture. Cultivation was not easy, given the terrain. The slope of the hills would direct the flow of water to lower levels, leaving the higher reaches parched in the summer. Moreover, coal mining ended up ravaging the landscape, causing ecological disturbances that left the higher land drier still—and tribal cultivators at a loss.

Employment by the coal industry was meant to make up for that, but only about a fifth—far less, some say—of Jharkhandis who live in coal tract areas have industry jobs. The rest have to make a living through the illegal coal trade.

Back in the 1970s, the Centre’s promise was that “a male in each family would [be] given a job working in a coal field”, says Ram Prakash Chaudhury, MLA of Ramgarh, a district in Jharkhand. “But that stopped once [state-owned] coal companies started using diggers and machines,” he adds.

Chaudhury was lucky. His farming family owned 100 acres, a rarity among SCs and STs (only 1.2 per cent of them have four or more acres). In 1989, Central Coal Fields needed land to expand, and he signed up. Given a clerical job at Rajarappah, he became a coal trader and did well for himself. But few of Jharkhand’s SCs and STs have gained anything from any of the changes. “They have been forced to swap the cow for the cycle,” says Kuntala Lahiri Dutt of Australian National University, an academic on a visit to Jharkhand to study the phenomenon of more and more people turning into coal cycle wallahs. “Coal is now their cash cow.”

Chaudhury says: “People could once buy coal from Coal India Ltd depots in small amounts. Now supplies only go to industry. People don’t have an alternative but to steal it.” A leader of the All Jharkhand Students’ Union (AJSU), Chaudhury is also Jharkhand’s labour minister who says he has lobbied the Coal Ministry to revive the depots phased out by coal companies in the 80s once LPG gained popularity as a cooking fuel.

The poor, however, find LPG too expensive. Moreover, given the corruption of the public distribution system, they have no access to these cylinders anyway. Coal is all they have. Chaudhury’s verve in highlighting this has helped him win three consecutive elections, despite allegations that he has misappropriated government funds for district development. “It’s crazy,” he says, “Why can you buy ten trucks in an auction but not a bag?”

Others have similar questions. “Is coal heroin? Is it morphine?” asks Dr Amitabh Kaushal, district collector of Ramgarh district. A few kilometres from the Rajarappah Coal Washery, we sit across each other nursing the obligatory china cups of sweet tea served to visitors of top-bracket administrators.

Coal purchase permits remain the preserve of big firms. “Coal only goes to suppliers with an agreement with Coal India,” says Professor Raghu Ram of Xavier Labour Research Institute (XLRI) in Jamshedpur. As part of a study, he has been tracking the state’s coal cyclists. “Small players and ordinary people don’t get their share of this natural resource,” says Professor Raghu Ram.


The unorganised sector is said to control 25 per cent of all the coal mined in India. It is no secret that coal ‘mafia’ dons connive with corrupt coal company officials to ‘divert’ coal trucks: around 20 million tonnes of coal are estimated to be diverted each year.

Only a fraction of all the stolen coal can be traced to coal cycle wallahs, who have to routinely bribe the police. Coal theft takes place round the clock. Gates at large washeries are left open to allow endless rows of coal trucks to exit. One can drive in any time on a two-wheeler and rake in what one can. It helps that a large number of washeries and mines have dense forests by their side, which allows coal pickers to slip away.

Security guards face a losing battle. At Rajarappah, women gatherers scatter when a guard in khaki turns up to clear them, an attempt he makes thrice a day. As a threat, the guard stamps on an abandoned basket. With loads on their heads, eight women flee and head for a clearing where their husbands wait with bikes.

Serai Manji was once a domestic help; her husband Bisharma, a labourer. They are of the Munda tribe, who make up large numbers of Jharkhand’s landless. Now Serai and Bisharma push off together, following cycle tracks on a thin bed of coal ash along a path through the trees.

We leave Rajarappah Coal Washery as the sun descends. The heat of the day has eased. Men and women push coal-laden bikes in a steady stream.


Jharkhand’s army of coal cyclists set their schedules by the heat. A mother-and-son team flip-flop along a dirt track off a tarmac road, heading home. Arms taut, the mother’s green sari is of cheap polyester, flower-patterned with a gold border. She pushes the bicycle from behind even as her son works the handlebars—in jeans, a shirt and open-toe sandals—to steer the load, the selling of which will sustain the family for a week. Going downhill, the boy goes to the back as his mother rushes after, catching up as the bike stops. At the next incline, it’s a hard push upwards once again.

Holiya is in her early forties. “The work is terrible—I definitely don’t want him to do it for long,” she says, gesturing to Puneet. The father hovers around to help, occasionally, but mostly to watch in silence. I enquire if Puneet–a 13-year old–has taken over his father’s role in the operation. “My uncle got drunk,” Puneet replies, “There was an argument with my father. He hit him with an axe and it drew blood. Dad gets dizzy now when he pushes the bike. That was two months ago.” Two hours of the journey lie ahead; neither can push alone.

We return the next day to a row of numberless stone houses. Holiya sits on the floor of the main room with her husband. Holiya’s bicycle—the family’s only means of survival—is propped against a stone wall behind a calendar, a deity hanging above. Her wide-grinned eldest daughter Geeta stands by her. She is to be married in a few weeks. To raise money for the event, Holiya is abandoning their rest day between trips. At 150-180 kg of coal, Holiya and Puneet’s load is not the heaviest. But their journey of 40 km is among the longest.

Holiya agrees to let us follow a three-day round trip–to the mine and then on to Morhi, a small town, to sell the coal. Their plan is to catch up on sleep by the roadside. “So far nothing untoward has happened,” she says, “but my husband used to be there to protect me– now I only have my son.” To reach the town by morning, they need to time their journey well: they are to sleep by 10 pm and wake up at 3 am to set off again.

When we return two days later to join them on their pre-dawn collection run, we find Holiya’s family has vanished. A heavy padlock secures their wooden door and the rest of the village is asleep. At the edge of the settlement, we speak to an elderly woman. She says that Holiya fears our presence may draw police harassment. And while the police rarely prosecute coal thieves, the family cannot risk any damage to their bike or having to pay a bribe. They need all their cash for Geeta’s nuptials. Uttam Addi, a dhaba owner, serves omelettes and poori sabzi near Anguwalli, an abandoned coal mine of Central Coalfields Ltd. As cycle wallahs eat, a digger moves rocks around in a ‘breaking yard’ next door. “The police often patrol the roads,” he says. Many had fled an earlier raid. But Sagar Das had already loaded up before they turned up. Aged 35, Sagar took up peddling coal a decade ago after he lost his job as a hotel assistant. “I am so frail now. My body aches,” he says, brushing his teeth with a neem stick. “I fell ill on a very hot day last year,” he says, over the sound of a conveyor belt. “I vomited. I had to sell my load at the same price I bought it because I couldn’t go on.”

The road is empty. Sagar figures the police won’t return and agrees to let us follow him, letting me push his load to check how heavy it is. I do alright for a while. But Sagar jumps in to grab the handlebar when the bike nearly topples, guiding me to the centre. He takes control again, and I push from the other side of the handle bar.

We walk in unison, scrub on either side, my breath matching his, against the sound of cicadas. Soon, I begin to sweat. The soles of my trainers help me get a grip on the dusty path. Sagar is in sandals. I am aware that I would not be able to go on for even half the journey that Sagar makes three times a week. “I started with 100 kg in my first year. And over two years, I went up to 200 kg,” he says. “But countless times, the bike would topple.”

I keep a ear out for passing vehicles. I pull back from the bike as a truck goes by, not wanting to attract attention to Sagar if they see a gora pushing a coal cycle. I help him along for 10 km to a village, where he tries to sell his load. But he has little luck. Soon we are joined by a phalanx of ten coal cyclists. The sale price of stolen coal tends to stay fairly constant. But Sagar has to work hard for a sale because cycle coal is available in abundance, this being a regular route for peddlers. He ducks down a side street to find another door to knock on. I move to follow, but lose him.


Bokaro is known as ‘steel city’, and one presumes its cogs are oiled by steel profits, not illegal coal. But it is illegal coal that ordinary people here rely on. At around 8 am one morning, 50-70 coal cyclists gather at Bokaro’s Hafiamod drop site. They buy coal from other cyclists who have made the journey from the region’s coal mines.

“Poverty is a great teacher,” says Bhola, as he pulls one end of a strand of twine, looping it back through a small hole. “I was slow when I started. My friends had to teach me,” Bhola says, gesturing to fellow cyclists Phatik and Subash. Vehicles rush by as they walk the four-lane highway out of Bokaro.

After 15 km, they reach the suburb of Chas. Subash is in charge of brokering a deal. After some rejections, he enters a lane. He returns smiling. They will sell part of their load to a mother who lives away from the main street. Above her house, a sign reads ‘Chas Electronics’. Old TVs, radios and keyboards litter the small front room. Her husband is fixing a customer’s mobile phone on a counter top. They use coal as cooking fuel.

After accounting for expenses, Bhola and his friends have each made Rs 130, which is a reasonable rural wage for a day’s labour.

We stop at a dhaba, and the warm glow of illegal coal heats a blackened pot. As Vinodh pours tea into glasses, the bicycle that bore the coal stands propped against a tree. “We’d have to put up prices if we didn’t buy coal like this.” he says. Without it, Jharkhand’s dhabas would shut down, not to mention brick kilns and small sponge-iron units.

It is all illegal, but coal theft sustains an entire micro-economy in these parts. Busting the network would render thousands jobless and many more hungry.

India’s coal sector remains mired in inefficiency, with no new mine clearances and overall production insufficient to meet even the country’s large-scale-use needs, leave aside those of common folk. The Ministry of Environment and Forests has blatantly been sitting on projects, even as mining legislation to speed up land acquisition has been delayed by myriad reasons—including the resistance of industrial developers to proposals for the welfare of local people. Among the worst sufferers of the coal shortfall is the power sector, which has been forced to import its input fuel from overseas in bulk.

With few signs of any reform in India’s coal sector, this dismal state of affairs is likely to continue. Coal cyclists—and the coal mafia—will continue to plug gaping gaps in supply for domestic and small-scale use. Until something is done, this demand for coal will make thieves of people like Holiya, Sagar and Bhola. People in need of a livelihood.