Kulsuma Begum, aged around 60, extracts coal from the Someshwari River every day from dawn to dusk.
Able to mine 25-30 kilogrammes of coal a day, this elderly resident of Balikandi village in Durgapur upazila, Netrakona, has been earning her living this way for the past 10 years.
However, the mineral on which more than a thousand residents of Durgapur – many of whom are women – depend on for their livelihoods, also brings sufferings to their lives. They suffer from various work-related health problems. Without any safety precautions, their hands and legs often get wounded by the friction between the limbs and the sand.
But the wounds do not deter them.
Female coal miner Wheelis Nokrek, for example, was seen extracting the mineral with her wounded hands wrapped only in polythene.
"Hunger does not allow us to take any rest," she said.
The miners sell per maund of coal at Tk300-Tk350.
"Some days, if I get lucky, I can collect a maund of coal. This is the only earning source for my family," said Kulsuma Begum.
The hilly river flowing through the area carries silica sand and coal from the upstream of Meghalaya in India during monsoon. After the monsoon season, the water flow reduces, leaving behind the coal deposited under the sand of the river.
The miners collect the coal throughout the year, except during the rainy season.
Mining coal from the riverbed is no easy task though, as the mineral lies hidden under the sand.
"The coal cannot be found everywhere on the riverbed," explained Fatema Begum, another coal miner from Balikandi village.
"We dig the dry riverbed at random points. Sometimes, we do not find any coal after digging the riverbed up to four to five feet deep. When we find coal, we have to sort out it from the sand."
The miners can be found busy with their spades and sieves on the riverbed at anytime of the day. Locals start digging the dry riverbed by 10am in the morning. Men, women and children of different ages are involved in this work.
Women usually collect the coal by digging the dry sandy riverbed. Men extract it from under water, where the flow is thin, using sieves. After collecting the mineral, they wash it with the river water and then sell it to coal traders.
This trade has given birth to an informal coal market on the char of the river, which is thronged by coal traders during the afternoon. The traders directly buy coal from the locals and sell it to the owners of brick kilns.
Brick kiln owners from different parts of the country, including Mymensingh, Sherpur and Tangail, collect coal from the upazila. Traders claim that the coal found in Durgapur makes for a very good source of fuel.
Farid Mia, a local coal trader, said brick kiln owners buy the mineral at Tk7,000-Tk10,500 per tonne. The prices vary depending on the quality of the coal.
However, some miners alleged that an organised syndicate controls the coal market there. The syndicate fixes the selling price and the miners have to obey it.
The coal collectors said the local administration had no control over the market.
A miner named Jahangir told The Business Standard that they would get fair prices if the local administration would monitor the market.
Asked what they were doing to help the miners in the region, Durgapur Upazila Nirbahi Officer Farzana Khanam, said, "We shall look into the matter and take measures to ensure that the coal collectors get fair prices."