Delving Beneath the Surface: Mining in Indian Children’s Books

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By Archana Natraj

India is the world’s second-largest coal producer and a major producer of bauxite, iron, and zinc ore. Extracting these ores offers significant economic benefits, but it comes at a cost – land-use change, deforestation, erosion, contamination of wetlands and carbon emission that affect the environment, the livelihood and social fabric of local communities.

The coal and lignite mines in India remain clustered within a few states (Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, and Bihar). Unfortunately, the story of abuse of power and reckless greed in these areas – usually populated by tribal communities – often remains hidden from the rest of India.

In recent years, a handful of award-winning children’s books have focused on these untold tales. Each book brings out a strong and significant message for young readers, echoing the UN Sustainable Development Goals on Affordable and Clean Energy, Responsible Consumption and Production and Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions.

I Will Save My Land by author-activist Rinchin tackles the large-scale land dispossession among tribes in Chhattisgarh. A young Mati pesters her father and grandmother for her own plot of land and works hard on it. Soon, there is news of a company that wants to make a coal mine in their village – an enormous black pit that will eat up all their land, just like it has in the next village. The little girl’s heightened anxiety about losing her precious piece of land to “a monster machine” cuts close to the heart. This tale of marginalization and the cost of development is particularly remarkable for using the picture book format to tell an extremely nuanced and complicated story without oversimplifying it.

Goa usually evokes a holiday postcard image of golden beaches and pristine skies. Yet, the state has about 90 working mines that yield over 45 million tons of iron ore. Nandita Da Cunha reveals the devastating effects of mining in Goa in Pedru and the Big Boom. As a child who visited Goa every vacation, the author has witnessed the destruction caused by development projects on the green cover and the lives of the local people of the state. She wonders, “Development is inevitable, but when it comes at the cost of nature, wildlife, local communities, we have to stop and ask ourselves – at what cost?” Through the eyes of young Pedru, we see the boom of the diggers, the red dust that covers the cashew crops, making everything taste like dust. We see water sources reduced to a trickle and a thirsty crocodile abandoning its habitat. And finally, we see the dramatic climax, with the failure of the tailings dam, revealing emphatically the cumulative impact of mining operations in Goa.

The story also uncovers a more insidious impact of mining on the local community, when Babu’s family chooses to abandon traditional clam fishing to manage six trucks for the miners. Their sudden prosperity captures the profound inequality, which fractures the social fabric and chisels away at solidarity.

Siddhartha Sarma’s Year of Weeds is a fictional tale based on the true story of the agitation of the Dongria Konds against bauxite mining in Odisha’s Niyamgiri hills. The book lays bare the hard realities of corporate greed, the indifference of those with power, and the red tape that makes the justice system an unviable resort in our democracy. Through the gentle Korok, a young Gond boy who works as a gardener, we see the struggle of a simple community to retain their homes, ancestral lands and culture that they revere. As we walk with Korok, we see how he treasures the hill on which his dead mother is memorialized in a hanal kot, a stone. We find ourselves staring at the ugly face of injustice, when we see him grappling with his father’s unlawful detainment. As Korak fights the relentless weeds in the garden, his realization that “nobody cared about the Gonds” leaves you with a lump in your throat as you witness the inexorable struggle of those who want nothing more than to stay in a place, they have called their home for generations. As Sarma said in an interview in the publisher’s blog, “By writing it as a YA novel, I was hoping young people would have access to this story, which I was not certain they would have if I had written it for an adult readership. Adults are good at hiding these issues from young people.”

Oonga by Devashish Makhija is a mature examination of the paradox between dystopian development and utopian ideologies. The uncompromising narrative unleashes the stark journey of a little tribal boy in a landscape marred by the clash between Adivasis, Naxalites, the CRPF and a mining company. Along the way, it uncovers the unfair tragedy of victims of violence who are forced into battles they never wanted to fight.

A dialogue from the famous movie Avatar, set in an imaginary Pandora where the Na’vi tribe fights against the mighty Sky people hungry for the unobtanium deposits in their land, comes to mind: You need to wake up, Parker. The wealth of this world isn’t in the ground – it’s all around us.

Even if need less coal in the future to create electricity, an often-overlooked reality is that the shift to net zero will require more mining, not less. Mining will continue for elements such as lithium, nickel, cobalt and graphite for energy storage, copper and aluminum for energy transmission, and silicon and uranium for solar-, wind- and nuclear-power generation.

An awareness of what is truly precious and a deep sense of respect for those who revere the land they live on, are paramount in addressing this complex issue. Our hope lies with the younger generation and the wonderful tribe of children’s authors who are lighting up the path with stories that allow readers to scrutinize mining projects and the true cost of ‘progress’.

Archana Natraj is a transportation systems engineer who currently follows her passion for teaching, storytelling and reading. She runs Grey Matters, a Facebook group, book clubs and teen life skills workshops.

Recommended Reading

  1. I Will Save My Land by Rinchin and Sagar Kolwankar, Tulika Publishers
  2. Year of the Weeds by Siddhartha Sarma, Duckbill Books
  3. Oonga by Devashish Makhija, Tulika Publishers
  4. Pedru and the Big Boom by Nandita Da Cunha, Kalpavriksh
  5. 10 Indian Tribes and the Unique Lives They Lead by Nidhi Dugar Kundalia, Duckbill Books
  6. Unearthed: An Environmental History of Independent India by Meghaa Gupta, Puffin
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