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Jharia: The burning village

Last Updated: 9th Mar 2020

By Luís Costa

“It is difficult to stand here barefoot even for a second, as the ground is searing hot. The situation turns worse during summers when the underground heat and the sizzling temperatures make life unbearable" (Manoj Reamani, 48 years old)


Jharia Coalfield is a large coal field located in the east of India in Jharia, Jharkhand. Jharia represents the largest coal reserves in India having estimated reserves of 19.4 billion tonnes of coking coal. The Dhanbad-Jharia area forms part of a mineral rich corridor, most of India’s reserves in coal (32% of total in India), copper (18.48%), iron (25.07%) ore and uranium are located in the Durgapur-Dhanbad-Bokaro-Jamshedpur triangle. The other important minerals available in significant quantities are limestone, dolomite, manganese, mica, china clay, graphite, fire clay, coal bed methane, uranium, phosphorite, apatite, quartz, gold, feldspar and pyroxenite.

The coal field lies in the Damodar River Valley, and covers about 110 square miles (280 square km), and produces bituminous coal suitable for coke. Most of India's coal comes from Jharia. Jharia coal mines are India's most important storehouse of prime coke coal used in blast furnaces, it consists of 23 large underground and nine large open cast mines.
Scattered in the region are the vast open-cast mines, interspersed with villages and miners colonies. Trucks loaded with coal and heavy machinery dominate the scenery, interrupted by push-carts and bicycles – loaded with coal. The Dhanbad-Jharia region is said to be one of the most polluted areas of the world. Mining in itself is a rather forceful intervention in the environment, but capitalist social relations have resulted in forms of mining, which aggravate the attack on nature and, as part of it, on the human bodies.




The mining activities in these coalfields started in 1894 and had really intensified in 1925.
Jharia is famous for a coal field fire that has burned underground for more than a century. The first fire was detected in 1916. According to records, it was the Khas Jharia mines of Seth Khora Ramji Chawda (1860–1923), who was a pioneer of Indian coalmines, whose mines were one of the firsts to collapse in underground fire in 1930. Two of his collieries, Khas Jharia & Golden Jharia, which worked on maximum 260-foot-deep shafts,collapsed due to now infamous underground fires, in which their house & bungalow also collapsed on 8 November 1930, causing 18 feet subsidence and widespread destruction. The fire never stopped despite sincere efforts by mines department and railway authorities and in 1933 flaming crevasses lead to exodus of many residents. The 1934 Nepal–Bihar earthquake led to further spread of fire and by 1938 the authorities had declared that there is raging fire beneath the town with 42 collieries out of 133 on fire.

01958160015837489418784.jpg
Local people suffering with toxic fumes from Jharia

Jharia Coalfield, Dhanbad District, Jharkhand, India


The productivity drive towards open-cast mining has increased the dust production, the whole area is covered with fine coal dust, causing epidemic respiratory suffering. In order to cut costs, many mines – and not only the unofficial mines – are not re-filled with sand, once the coal is extracted. This results in gas accumulation, underground explosions, underground fires and caving in of whole areas. Since years a large-scale underground fire burns under the surface of Jharia, under the living area of about 600,000 people. Here and there the earth cracks open, gas, smoke and flames emerge. Skeletons of trees, burnt from within. Jharia was declared eviction area in the early 1980s, an official master-plan was set-up to re-located hundred of thousands of residents, but was either not put into place or displaced people were not given compensation – which increased the resistance of people towards being displaced, be it for mining or for ‘their own safety’ in order to escape the underground flames.



It is believed that nearly 75% of electricity supply in India comes from coal combustion which makes the country one of the main emitters of CO2 on the planet, after China and the United States.
BCCL have been running the mines in Jharia since the government nationalised the coking coal industry in 1971. In a rush to curtail financial losses and meet the country’s staggering energy demands, BCCL began switching from underground mining to open cast mining (where coal is mined from the surface), an easier and more profitable method of extraction. Over time, vast expanses of land were stripped and blasted into 400ft-deep pits, which today produce more than 32m tonnes of coal a year.
Fire is everywhere in Jharia, India. Massive flames and blue flares shoot straight out of the ground, while cloying smoke suffocates everything around. It sounds like a macabre scene from a horror movie or post-apocalyptic nightmare, but it’s everyday life for the men, women and children, who live and work in Jharia’s open cast coal mines.



The conflagration in Jharia spews toxic gas and plumes of smoke and causes ground fissures and collapses that consume more houses every year. In 1995, the ground subsided and swallowed 250 homes in just two hours.
Thousands of people in Jharia are affected by serious diseases and respiratory problems such as tuberculosis, wheezing, asbestosis and lung disease. On average, the life expectancy of people living near the Jharia coalfields is reduced by at least a decade.
The biggest culprit is airborne particulate matter, which is associated with the mining, storing and transporting of coal. High levels of both particulate matter PM10 and the finer and even more dangerous PM2.5 are found here in the coal belt. The average concentration of PM10 has been found to exceed India’s air quality standards by three to four times. Oxides of sulfur, nitrogen and carbon released by coal fires further pollute the air.



Together, these pollutants result in chronic respiratory diseases like bronchitis and asthma. Their incidences are at least 35–40% higher in the coal belt than in other parts of India. Patients frequently arrive at this hospital with symptoms of pneumoconiosis — a disease caused by the accumulation of fine dust particles in the lungs. Coal miners in particular may develop anthracosis, also known as Black Lung Disease, resulting from deposits of minute coal dust in the lungs.
In recent years many local residents have been injured or killed in Jharia. People have been burned alive after being sucked into flaming sinkholes in the ground.



The underground fire has contaminated the soil, water, and air in Jharia and nearby areas. Trees and vegetation are dying in most places of this arid dystopian landscape.

It is mandatory to fill up the coal pits after extraction, but activists say the rules are frequently flouted. This not only raises the risk of accidents but also leads to coal scavenging.
A common sight along the highways and smaller roads are bicycles loaded with sacks of illegally gathered coal, pushed by “coal cycle-wallahs”. Each bike carries a quarter-ton of coal, with the wallahs sometimes pushing them further than 40 miles from the mines.

08635260015837489417752.jpg
A scavenger's bundled bags of coal ready for transport.

Jharia Coalfield, Dhanbad District, Jharkhand, India


Children (as young as 6) work long hours from dawn to dusk either crawling in wet coal 250 feet underground in unstable and unscientific mines where dynamite rods are carelessly used to extract coal, or carrying inconceivable weights of coal on their heads, walking for long distances over scorching and hazardous coalfields which threaten to buckle as the underground coal fires rage out of control.



Besides being deprived of the basic human needs such as clean air (sulphurous methane gasses escape from large cracks in the ground as coal fires rage beneath the earth in the coalfields), clean water (in many cases, rain water pumped out of the flooded mines are reused for daily needs, causing water toxicity poisoning), basic sanitation, and a stolen childhood, these children also have no access to education or healthcare.



Since it’s not possible to put out the coal fires, it is important to relocate people living in close proximity to them. However, rehabilitation efforts leave a lot to be desired. In 2008, BCCL released a master plan to deal with the fire and land subsidence hazards and fixed a timeline of 12 years for resettlement and rehabilitation of local residents.
The responsibility of the resettlement was given to Jharia Rehabilitation and Development Authority (JRDA), which identified 595 sites, including 11 in West Bengal’s Raniganj area where BCCL also operates mines, that involved 79,000 families to be relocated by 2020. However, not much has been done since then. In 11 years (until 2019), just 3,000 families have been rehabilitated so far to Belgoria, a new township around 15 km from Jharia. In the meanwhile, the number of families to be rehabilitated has swelled to around 140,000 from 79,000 families.
They have been moved from their former houses to one or two-room flats in Belgaria with inadequate amenities: a poor sewage system; ramshackle houses, and no toilet. Because Belgaria is so far away from Jharia, most of the villagers have been forced to quit their jobs, while those still working in the coal mines face a long daily commute, forcing many to reduce their work hours.




Coal fires are hard to extinguish, but sometimes pouring sand or nonflammable material on them can smother the flames. Digging trenches around the fires can isolate them, and injecting inert gas into the underground mining tunnels can deprive them of oxygen.
The burning of coal has benefited civilization, but there are consequences to those benefits that should be considered by all involved entities.



References:
1 - wikipedia; 2 - RTD.rt.com; 3 - visura.co; 4 - qz.com; 5 - lacuna.org.uk; 6 - yourstory.com; 7 - cnbc.com; 8 - libcom.org 9 - researchgate.net




Article has been viewed at least 1320 times.

Discuss this Article

11th Mar 2020 11:19 GMTAchille Sorlini

Thank you Luis.
A bit different from usual article on Mindat, but so hard to know about people and children living conditions.

11th Mar 2020 11:52 GMTKevin Hean

It's almost worse than Gemstone mining.

11th Mar 2020 15:32 GMTLuís Costa

Thanks Achille

11th Mar 2020 19:17 GMTPaul Brandes Manager

Reading this reminds me of the great Centralia, Pennsylvania coal fire that still burns today.
Great article, Luís!

12th Mar 2020 08:29 GMTLuís Costa

Thanks Paul

13th Mar 2020 18:56 GMTMark Heintzelman Expert

I often pass through Centrailia on my way to and from University, between 1982-86, just before and after the buy-outs.  Route 61 was preferable when road conditions were less favorable to taking the more direct and scenic Route 901 (almost didn't make it's steepest incline in freezing slush condition one winter, as other motorist were less fortunate and had a very long journey of backtracking ahead of them . . lesson learned).  

It was only the year before, when a 12-year-old fell into a sinkhole which suddenly opened beneath him in a backyard.  He survived a potential 150 ft drop by clinging to a tree root until his cousin managed to pull him out to safety.  The news story that finally put Centralia's issues into the National spotlight.

It was certainly an interesting time and place to witness, including it's several smoking steel venting stacks along the way, installed to chimney fumes up and away from the road.  Just a blemish compared to Jaharia though.

A wonderful article Luís, and much appreciated!

14th Mar 2020 19:25 GMTLuís Costa

Thanks Mark

11th Mar 2020 19:54 GMTHarald Schillhammer Expert

Also love the photographs.

12th Mar 2020 08:29 GMTLuís Costa

Thanks Harald. They are impressive!
 
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