Urvi Khaitan, University of Oxford
We are delighted to share this blog, which is runner up in the 2021 SHS Postgraduate Prize. You can read the announcement here.
Somi Bowri would have been happy doing anything other than working in a coal mine. Born in the 1910s in an Adivasi (indigenous) Bowri community, she had begun working as a manual labourer in a coalfield in Bihar, British India in the mid-1940s. Somi had been married at twelve, and started living with her husband at fourteen. Poor earnings from agriculture drove them to the coalfields in their early thirties. They had five sons and two daughters; their twelve-year-old son worked in the colliery with them. Every time she received her wages she handed them over to her husband, who held the family purse strings.
Radhi Domin, also a manual labourer in a Bihar coalfield, did not mind her job so much and only complained when it got too hot in the summer. Born into a Hindu low-caste Dom community in 1917, married at two and widowed at eight, she was remarried at sixteen to a widower with a daughter. They had worked in four collieries. Every week her husband handed over his earnings to Radhi, who was in charge of the family finances.
Somi’s and Radhi’s are two of the handful of stories of colonial India’s mining women that remain. In British India’s eastern provinces of Bengal and Bihar, women comprised between one-third and half the workforce in coal mines. They worked both above and below ground in a range of manual labouring roles that were seen as ‘unskilled’. Most often they worked as loaders, carrying eighty-pound baskets of hewed coal up steep inclines equivalent to walking uphill for five miles. Others worked above ground pushing tubs, picking shale, removing boiler ash, or sprinkling water on heaps of coal. Mineworkers were amongst the most poorly paid in British India, and women were paid just over half the wages men received for the same kind of work.
Mining women’s working lives were incredibly precarious. In 1927, the Chief Inspector of Mines published a set of photographs of women at work in coal mines (reproduced here) that were reminiscent of the contentious illustrated engravings in the British 1842 Report of the Children’s Employment Commission. While it is impossible to know if the women consented to being photographed, the construction of the pictures seems deliberate – as if to generate shock at how unsuitable minework was for Indian women. While they showed women working above and below ground, it was the latter that proved most inflammatory. In Britain, women and children had been prohibited from working underground in 1842. In the early twentieth century, India was one of only three countries in the world that allowed female employment below ground (the other two were Japan and Russia). Discussions around women’s underground work are an example of how gendered discourses indelibly shaped what kinds of work were deemed acceptable for women and also how these restricted the spaces they could be seen in.
Women’s work underground began to be regulated from 1929 onwards in colonial India, with a complete prohibition being enforced in 1937. Beginning with this, in the space of a decade the colonial state imposed, reversed, and then re-imposed legislation to completely exclude women from underground work with devastating consequences. The first ban excluded some 40,000 women from the workforce. A rapidly-escalating Allied coal crisis forced the reversal of the ban in 1943, but its re-imposition in 1946 snatched away employment from over 22,000 women. While pro-legislation lobbies in London and Delhi saw the prohibition of women’s work underground as ‘progressive’ and ‘humanitarian’, the impact was anything but. In both cases of exclusion, no compensation or alternative employment were offered. Family incomes declined precipitously without the key female wage contribution, and single women suffered tremendously. Since the coalfields were located in remote parts of eastern India and many communities were working on lands they had been dispossessed from, retrenched women had practically no access to other livelihoods. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of women continued to work above ground in treacherous conditions.
Throughout this period, British and Indian elites spoke, argued, and wrote prolifically about Indian women’s employment in mines. In the House of Commons in London, in the Legislative Assembly in Delhi, at the International Labour Office in Geneva, in chambers of commerce, at boardroom meetings, and in the pages of newspapers, magazines, and journals, heated discussions took place on whether women should be allowed to work in dangerous and oppressive conditions. The focus in these elite discourses remained entirely on the question of excluding women from underground work, and did not consider improving working conditions and providing protective equipment, welfare, health and safety benefits (which were practically non-existent) for those women and men who would continue to work in mines.
The voices of mining women themselves, however, were completely silenced in this discourse. Seen primarily as ‘wives’ and ‘mothers’, they remained unseen as working women. Several identities were ascribed to them – nurses, housekeepers, cooks, drunks, prostitutes, and guardians of temperance and morality. Since the focus was on their reproductive, rather than also their productive, roles, mining women were not regarded as individual providers of labour power in their own right. They were intensely vulnerable to legislative decisions determined by the colonial state’s shifting needs. Their own needs, desires, and expectations as working women were never considered. In 1923, social worker Kamini Roy interviewed women who worked underground with their male partners and asked them their thoughts on a possible ban:
No, no; we should like to be together, otherwise we shall always be in fear and anxiety thinking what might happen to them. When we work together we have no anxiety, for if we die, we die together.”
For state, capital, and elites, these voices did not matter – they were not sought out, and they were not heard.
Multiple marginalities characterised mining women’s lives – as colonial subjects, as Adivasi or lower-caste women, as non-literate and extremely poorly-paid labourers working in remote rural locations, and practicing an occupation that literally invisiblised them by taking them underground – they are women beneath the surface, both literally and metaphorically.
But precious little has changed since then. Today India is the world’s second-largest producer of coal, which is the single largest fuel underpinning electricity generation in the country. The acquisition of protected lands for mining continues with little attention from mainstream media. These mines pose incredible dangers to local communities; underground fires have been raging uncontrolled in Jharia, Bihar for over a century. Locals have been forced into a cycle of dependence on minework for survival. Too many socio-economic barriers limit their mobility. In February 2019, after 73 years, the Indian government removed the prohibition on women’s work underground. It is entirely possible that Somi’s and Radhi’s great granddaughters and their daughters go to work beneath the surface today.
About the author: Urvi Khaitan is a DPhil student in Economic and Social History at the University of Oxford. Her work focuses on gender, labour, and empire in twentieth-century South Asia, and her doctoral thesis aims to examine how gender, caste, class, and empire shaped working women’s experiences of the turbulent South Asian economy during the Second World War.