“The fire is rapidly taking the old mine workings beneath the settlement in its grasp and could also spread beneath the two concrete dam situated near the workings making the area prone to flooding also”, says Rahul Guha, Deptuy Director General of Mine Safety (DDG). There are some 70 active fires in the Jharia region, spread over an area of 18 square kilometers. In an area that is crisscrossed with hundreds of underground mine shafts and vast deposits of coal they spell imminent crisis.
The landscape looks something out of a sci-fi movie. Cracks and fissure open up on the roads as plumes of smoke reach out for the sky. Vegetation on the surface is thin as the heat from below has left the land arid and infertile. A sulphurous stench clings to the surface. At night sets the fields around the Jharia take on a surreal effect. Blue flames can be seen dancing on the surface and the fires burning below can be clearly seen through the various cracks on the ground.
The first fires were reported as far back as 1916 when the British started systematic coal extraction here. This inaugurated an era of private mining which is frequently blamed for aggravating the fires owing to the reckless strip mining practiced by them.
When Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL) took charge of the mines in 1971, ostensibly to check these unscientific mining practices and the exploitation of labour, it also inherited a hundred underground fires.
Coal has been known to spontaneously combust in mines when it comes in contact with air. However, frequently these fires are started or sustained by man-made factors like unscientific mining and improper closure of abandoned mines. Old timers maintain that the coal seams were ignited in 1932 when a chance spark from a Davy lamp ignited highly volatile Marsh gas found in the mines. Since then the fires have only spread and despite serious efforts by the government to control them, have not been put out.
One of the most persistent threats from the fires is land subsidence. As coal turns to ash underground hollow vacuous voids are created that leave the surface land unstable and prone to sudden collapses. Since 1965 this has led to the loss of some 600 structures and has led to the death of more than 400 people. This phenomenon has seen a marked increased since 1990. As the fire spreads through abandoned mine shafts and underground coal seams, it brings increasing amounts of land under threat. Further construction is banned in most of the areas that are suffering from fires, however new structures inevitably come up in the form of settlements or shopping places.
They also pose a grave threat to miners in the region. The Bagdigi (2001) and the Gastiland (1995) and the New Kenda (1994) diasters were all grisly reminders of what could happen if the fires went unchecked. The worst of these, in terms of deaths was the Gastiland disaster when 65 miners died as an embankment weakened by the fires collapsed and flooded the mines. The New Kenda disaster occurred directly as a result of fires in the mines and the suffocation produced by the gases emitted from these fires. The 2006 Dahibadi disaster was also in a similar situation as 25 people died because of suffocation from gases present in the mines.
These fires are not unique to Jharia and have been known to occur in almost all major coal bearing areas in the world. China, Indonesia, USA and Mexico all suffer from such fires. Australia’s Burning Mountain has, according to researchers, been burning for 5000 years due to the vast reserves of coal present in its peak. However the only instance of these fires threatening a town comes from Centralia in the U.S.A. The fires in Centralia started in 1962 when burning trash in a dump ignited the coal seams underneath it. Soon the fires spread under the town itself. People started disappearing in cracks that would suddenly open ip in the ground and a number of buildings collapsed. Firefighters tried to put out the fires, unsuccessfully, for 20 years. Ultimately the town of Centralia had to be evacuated in 1980 and resettled.
But Centralia had about 11,000 residents. Jharia alone has 4 lakh, apart from the coalfields of Raniganj and Singareni that also suffer from SCFs. According to Anupama Prakash, a researcher…the coal fires in India represent the highest density of such fires anywhere in the world. Also, it is an area with the highest population density that suffers from such fires. The practical difficulties in putting out an underground fire sustaining on virtually inexhaustible supplies of coal coupled with the daunting demographics of the region make putting out the fire almost an impossible task. Experts believe that in order to control the fires they have to be isolated from underground coal seams and cut off the oxygen supply. This could only be done by digging out the fires and isolating them by stowing sand. In 2003, the government, under the guidelines of the Supreme Court, set apart a Rs. 5,000 crore rehabilitation package for the residents of Jharia. This came following a petition filed by Haradhan Roy in 1997. “It’s a Herculean task as we have to rehabilitate 3 lakh people and construct 65,000 housing units”, said Mr. P.S. Chatterjee, chairman of Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL) which runs most of the mines in the region and is in charge of the relocation project. The proposed Jharia Action Plan (JAP), as it is called, requires Rs.350 crores to be mobilized annually for what would be one of the biggest peacetime evacuations, next only to the Partition. Mr. Bhattacharya envisions a “millennium township” that shall have all the “modern amenities” that will put Jharia at par with the other modern industrial townships.
The scope of the JAP is not limited to just that. What began as a crisis management exercise now sows tangible benefits for the company. The rehabilitation of 3 lakh residents would leave the coal reserves beneath Jharia open to exploitation by the BCCL. The company which has been suffering from perennial losses ever since its inception hopes to script a turnaround in its fortunes by tapping into the virgin coalfields below Jharia township.
Jharia is almost the sole reserve of coking coal that is an indispensable component in the smelting of steel. Only 13 percent of indigenous reserves of coal is coking coal, most of which is found in Jharia. Availability of coking coal has been recognized as one of the prime factors retarding the growth of the steel industry. According to BCCL estimates over 50 million tones of prime coking coal has been lost in the last century or so as a result of the fires. The demand for coking coal has been steadily on the rise given the boom in the steel industry at the moment. In this context JAP gets assumes a wholly different significance."Revitalisation of the Jharia Coalfields holds the key to providing substantial coking coal inputs for the growing steel industry — but it also offers tremendous benefits for the ailing BCCL which is now on the threshold of a turnaround," says BCCL CMD, P. S. Bhattacharyya.
In 2003, the Jharia-Patherdih railway line near Lodna mines was dismantled owing to the threat of the fires. Subsequently, the area was developed into an open cast mine which today is at the center of a spectacular reversal in fortunes of the BCCL. It now provides more than a million tones of coking coal annually. As result BCCL has been able to accumulate profits worth Rs. 700 crore for the first time in the last fiscal year.
However the plan has run into severe opposition from a section of citizens in Jharia who believe that there is actually no fire under the township and that BCCL is trying to dupe them of their own land. This may seem far fetched at first glance but is indicative of the deep mistrust and antipathy between the BCCL management and the residents of Jharia.
Their fears are not completely unfounded. The proposed resettlement site is located at Beghonia some 10 kilometers from Dhanbad. Construction was earlier scheduled to be complete by May 2006. Yet, barely a handful of houses have houses have been completed so far. Now the BCCL plans to launch the project in 2007. Even if the proposed settlement does materialize, there are still little or no employment prospects in the region. Residents say that the BCCL is trying to shift them off their lands but is not providing any compensation for the loss of livelihood that many of them will be faced with if they shift.
“The plan is ready. What is needed is the political will”, says P.S. Bhattacharya. Political will seemed hard to come by until recently when Union Minister of Coal Shibu Soren expressed his approval for JAP. This has led to a wave of resentment in Jharia against Soren as he was earlier seen as the champion of the fight against the BCCL.
The mistrust between the management and the residents is an old grudge. BCCL has in the past been associated time and again with the notorious coal mafia of the region. Recently, an official of the BCCL was convicted in the murder of Shib Sunder Das, an accountant with the company who was on the verge of exposing a racket between the BCCL and the mafia. The judgment that came some 25 years after Das’s murder has once brought forward some skeletons in the cupboard for BCCL.
Residents claim that their properties, the roads and railway tracks had been endangered in the first place due to the careless mining practices of the BCCL. The company employs the Open Cast method of mining which means that pits are sunk in the ground and suuccesive seams of coal are exposed and removed. While the BCCL claims that most of the best grade coking coal is found in the upper eaches o the mines hence making it more effective and economically a more viable method of mining. Nevertheless, this method is notorious for being one of the most ecological unfriendly methods of mining as vast areas are covered by the open pits thus adversely affecting the local ecology. Open Cast Mining in Jharakhand has led to the destruction of vast swathes of land, a lot of which was virgin forest and fertile land. This has adversely affected the aboriginal or semi aboriginal tribes that are native of Jharkhand, dominant amongst whom are the Santhals, Agarias and Birhors.
These tribes depend on the forest for their livelihood. However, open cast mining in the region has entailed large scale deforestation, destroying the livelihood of the tribes and forcing them to the cities to hunt for work. Many times the company simply starts the mining operations, without providing any compensation the tribes and frequently forcing them off their lands. Coal mining in the region is the single largest reason for land alienation in the region. This is ironical considering the fact that there are a number of laws to protect the sale or transfer of land belonging to indigenous tribal communities. Nevertheless, frequently the coal companies browbeat or intimidate the residents into vacating their lands. Many of them have the pattas or property deeds to their land but have practically ownership rights over it. Often they don’t even come to know of the sale until the transfer is complete. The starkest example comes from Pachwara where protected land was sold to Punjab State Electricity Board in 2002. When the locals protested the administration tried to silence them by filing false cases against them.
Stress on open cast mining has meant gradual loss of green cover. Patches that remain are under threat of dying out because of lack of water and the mining. This has meant a slow death to the tribal way of life and their culture. “The whole identity of Santhal Adivasis is threatened as their kin are dispersed and their sacred groves are violated”, says Bina Stanis of the Jharkhand based NGO Chottanagpur Adivasi Seva Samiti. Art forms like Khovar and Sohrai are dying out as more and more of their practitioners flood to the cities in order to work in the mines. The worst affected are the tribal women. With the destruction of the forest they have lost the means to be independent and now have to depend on the men for their basic needs. “With the whole process of acquiring land for mining being male oriented, women are left having no role in the new social milieu” adds Stanis.
Many of these aboriginals are thus forced to find work in illegal coal mines that dot the countryside. They represent a death trap claiming the lives of hundreds of workers each year who descend into these dank orifices with no safety gear or equipment and mostly mine the coal with their bare hands. They are paid sums of about 60-70 rupees for a days work. Safety is the least priority. “Most of these workers come from far off places”, says an ex-mine owner, “with little financial backing. If they get seriously injured getting them treated could mean arrest as the mines are illegal. Mostly they are simply left to fend for themselves or are buried there.” Their deaths go unrecorded, even by the local police, and their families do not get any compensation that the state often puts out in cases of mine accidents.
“Illegal mining is more of a social problem than anything else” points out Bhaskar Bhattachrya CMD, Directorate General of Mines Safety (DGMS). Illegal mining in the area began when private mining was banned in 1971 and all mines were assimilated into a public sector body-the BCCL. Subsequently, when the prices of coal started rising very fast the abandoned private mines proved a lucrative option for the notorious Dhanbad mafia that sold the coal at far cheaper rates. “What is really disturbing”, adds Bhaskar Bhattacharya “is the profile of people involved in it. We find children, we find ladies, we find people from the lowest levels of the economy undertaking this highly dangerous often for paltry sums of money. They are in search of livelihood and that is why they resort to illegal mining or pilfering from the dumps. Go on the roads and you will see bicycles laden with coal that is stolen.” Increasingly, the people seem to have little other options open for them. BCCL is in a scale-down mode at the moment and is not hiring any new labour. The only other industry in the region the Sindri fertilizer plant closed down in 2004. The state also seems to have disowned the tribals, with little no water and electricity supply or healthcare provisions inmost of the villages. Thus, with all other modes of income exhausted, often the tribals take to illegal mining and pilferage as an act of sheer desperation.
Recently Shibu Soren had made steps to legalize the illegal mines dotting the region in order to reduce exploitation of labour and reclaim revenues being lost due to illegal trafficking of coal. However, officials at the DGMS office in Dhanbad say that although this would open up opportunities of employment, it would be difficult to ensure safety standards are met in many of these mines. The fate of the proposal, nevertheless, seems to be uncertain after Sorens arrest a few days earlier.
The irony is that the Santhals and other tribal groups in the region formed the backbone of the movement for Jharkhand statehood. Almost six years after that was realized, the tribals are still one of the most marginalized groups in the society. “Where there is wealth there is no political health”, says A.K Roy former M.P and one of the architects of Jharkhand’s statehood. “The power is not in the hands of the Jharkhand people. Those who actually fought for Jharkhand are either dead or have abandoned the cause”, adds A.K Roy, taking aim at Shibu Soren.
The fact is that only the few associated with coal mining benefit here, while most others pay a heavy price on their account. The benefits of the vast reserves of mineral wealth continue to remain alienated from the people. The price that is being paid for development is such that turns once proud cultivators of land are being forced to turn into shameless thieves and smugglers.