The mineral-rich and once-beautiful area of Jharia is on fire. Literally. Incredible economic growth has increased the demand for energy. But the lethal tactics applied to extract this energy from Jharia’s coalmines are risking the lives of the region’s inhabitants.
In Jharia, in the federal state of Jharkhand, around 600,000 people live in the middle of one of India’s biggest coal mining areas. For most of them, there is no benefit to be gained. Quite the opposite: the soil, the water and the air are now contaminated, of all things, in an area that was previously rich in woodlands. With India’s strong economic growth, the need for energy, and thus the hunger for the dirty and supposedly cheap raw material coal, will only grow larger and larger. The coalfield of Jharia is, on the one hand, India’s biggest coal mining area and, on the other, the area with the most coal seam fires. Coal seam fires are not only one of the biggest causes of environmental pollution locally, but also globally. These blazes spout enormous quantities of carbon dioxide into the air, in India alone 1.4 billion tons a year. As a result, India has become the fourth biggest producer of greenhouse gas worldwide.
The story of Jharia is the story of how the greed for profit, vested interests and the thirst for power have prevailed, leaving one of the most mineral-rich areas in India economically backward. The mining marginalizes the poor and deepens social inequality in the name of economic development, profiting mostly large metropolises like Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai.
Opened in 1896, the Jharia mines in Dhanbad district, around 270 km from Ranchi, have huge deposits of coal. Shortly after 1971, the coal mines were nationalized. Since then, their operator has been Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL) which now controls one of the biggest coal deposits in India and the whole of Asia.1 Before 1973, coal mining was done underground, but after 1973, BCCL decided to shift to opencast. Right now BCCL mainly conducts opencast mining and– usually illegally, since in 97 percent of cases, no license has been granted. Opencast mining is more profitable than deep mining because productivity is significantly higher. In Jharia, coal is mined in the villages, next to the houses. In short, on people’s doorsteps. Even on the streets, on railway lines, in the station itself, which is no longer a station, coal is mined. The chairman of the railway board voiced a major complain against the illegal mining under the railway tracks. Ashok Agarwal from ‘Jharia Coalfield Bachao Samiti’ (Save Jharia Coalfield Committee), an organization formed by the inhabitants of Jharia to fight against the eviction orders of BCCL, says: “But the railways belong to the government of India, practically everything belongs to the government of India, so the matter has been hushed up.”
Theoretically, the mined area should be filled with sand and water afterwards, so it can be cultivated again. For cost reasons, however, this never happens, which leads to the coal seams coming into contact with oxygen and catching fire. India has the most coal blazes worldwide. BCCL representatives estimate that there are 67 fires in Jharia alone. Ashok Agarwal: “The fires which take place in the mines and all over the Jharia region are deliberately not being dowsed by BCCL. The mines are full of water, and if this water was properly channeled onto these fires they would be immediately quenched. Whenever the fires are against the interest of BCCL they are quickly dowsed. But most of the fires are in the interest of BCCL. The reason behind this: BCCL opted for opencast mining so they need more and more land for the expansion of these opencast mines. And land is not easily available. So they allow these fires to expand. As the fires progress, more and more land is declared hazardous, and the people are forced to evacuate. So BCCL gets land for the expansion of the mines and for the extraction of coal. This perhaps is the biggest tragedy Jharia is facing: the fires in Jharia are not being dowsed deliberately.”
“Our house is always very hot and smoke continuously billowsfrom out under the floor,” says one female inhabitantof Bokalpari, a small town on the edge of fire. In addition, thesmoke and vapors contain poisons, including carbon monoxide,sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, but also soot, methaneand arsenic. The damage to health is enormous. Lung andskin diseases, cancer and stomach disorders are only someof the illnesses that the people in Jharia have to fight. AshokAgarwal: “Because of this massive pollution here practicallyeverybody who is staying within the vicinity of Jhariatown, in fact most of the inhabitants of Jharia town as well,all of them have lung problems. For example bronchitis, canceror asthma. Or even more serious diseases. All because ofthe huge amount of coal dust inside their lungs. The averagelife expectancy of the inhabitants of this region nowadays isvery, very low.” What to do if somebody gets ill? The governmenthas its own hospitals but these hospitals are only for theemployees of BCCL.2 Ashok Agarwal says: “But the huge pollutiondoes not affect only BCCL employees. It affects everybodyliving here. And the poor people have to pay the bill forthe medical care from their own pocket when they get ill. Butmost of them don’t have the money to pay for medical services.
So they don’t go to the hospital at all.”Instead of doing something against the fires, one of the biggestresettlement plans worldwide is to be carried out: JhariaAction Plan (JAP). The inhabitants of the areas on fire are supposed to be resettled in Belgaria, a new town in the middleof the jungle. There is no school there, no medical care, noshops, and, worst of all, no jobs. Mostly, there are one-bedroomhouses where families, often numbering up to ten, are expectedto live. Ashok Agarwal says: “These people have been practicallyforced to go there. They have never been consulted aboutwhether this place suits them or not. They have not been askedwhich type of rehousing they want. BCCL decided on its ownto give them just one room of nine feet by eleven feet with onebathroom and a kitchen. And this in a far away place. In Belgaria,which is 8 km away from Jharia town.” Most of the peoplewho have already been resettled in Belgaria have been promisedRs 10,000 in compensation and 250 days of work. But mostof them have not received anything. In addition, the governmentwas supposed to provide for all of the infrastructural facilitiessuch as post offices, hospitals, schools, shopping malls, aswell as essentials such as electricity and water. But the governmenthas not delivered on its promises. Ashok Agarwal: “Allthese people have been shifted to Belgaria, but all the promisedinfrastructural facilities are not there. Most of the people didn’teven get the money they have been promised. One man has justdied because he couldn’t get any medical help and because hedidn’t even have the money to buy something to eat.”
So many decide to stay in Jharia. In the fire. In spite of theblazes. In spite of the perpetual grey veil that lies over the town.In spite of the air pollution, which makes breathing almostimpossible on a bad day. And in spite of the coal dust, whichsettles like a second skin on the body.
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Text and Photography by Isabell Zipfel