I am a multi-platform journalist with work published in different international newspapers, including Aljazeera English, DW, Friday Magazine, Barcroft TV, The Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Mirror and The Opinions Post. Have worked as a Desk Editor with Reuters and The Telegraph. I am trained in writing, editing, planning and prioritizing content for online, broadcast, radio and print media. I enjoy writing on national/international politics, society and culture, environment and human interest issues.Publications: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2015/06/female-foeticide-india-ticking-bomb-150629090758927.htmlhttps://news.vice.com/article/the-nowhere-people-of-india-and-bangladesh-finally-have-somewhere-to-go
Roughly 700,000 people live immediately above a series of underground fires that have been smoldering in the town of Jharia for a century, come next year. The government of India is, quite literally, playing with fire.
“State-run coal firm BCCL is deliberately stoking the fire so that they can have more and more of the area declared unsafe to live in and get a broader area in which to continue its mining operations,” says activist Ashok Agarwal of Jharia Coalfield Bachao Samiti, an organization formed by locals to fight the government’s dictatorial policies.
The area is rich in coal and, to cut costs, much of the mining in the area is done by opencast methods. Opencast mining is more profitable than deep mining since the costs of excavation are low and productivity is significantly higher. In Jharia, some 270km from Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand province, coal is mined everywhere. People armed with shovels dig their way into rat-hole mines near villages and dwellings, roads and even railway tracks.
Bokalpari is one of the many areas affected by the perennial fires in Jharia: no less than 67 have been raging in the belly of the earth. Mining in the area is a source of revenue and livelihood. But with the advent of modern machines, a majority of the manual workforce has become redundant. For villagers like Shamim Khan, mining has become more of a curse. Shamim used to work as driver’s assistant, but is currently unemployed.
“I haven’t had a job for around 5 years now," he said. "When my forefathers came here decades ago hoping to earn a good living, they left their land and property behind in Bihar. Now, we cannot even go and reclaim that land.”
Coal-seam fires annually spew around 1.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, making India the fourth biggest producer of greenhouse gas of the world. In Jharia, mining started back in 1896. After the nationalization of all coalmines in 1971, many were handed over to the state-owned Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL). But the desire to produce cheaper and cheaper coal prompted BCCL to depart from the standard practice of underground or tunnel mining in 1974.
“Coal-seam fires are nothing new in the coal belt. But they became a threat after BCCL opened up the mines,” says Agarwal.
The underground fires in Jharia will be a century old next year, but the government seems to be doing little to douse the flames.
“The BCCL is digging the fire out as part of the master plan,” says T K Lahiri, a managing director of BCCL.
Though mining companies are officially meant to fill abandoned mines with sand, anyone can see that the pits are left unattended. According to local residents, the leftover coal in these pits then comes into contact with oxygen and catches fire. The government’s plan of relocating residents of fire-affected areas has not yet materialized due to resistance from the people and officials’ half-hearted approach to the issue. So far, around 1100 families out of 2500 have been relocated to a township in Belgaria. Those who have moved to the township complain of a lack of basic amenities and job opportunities. This has prompted many to return to their fire-ravaged villages.
“Since there is no source of employment, I have to travel 13km on foot to reach Bokapahari. I know people here so it is easier for me to get a job,” says Shamim, 45, whose two sons have migrated to Delhi where they work as daily wage laborers.
As for those who decided to stay on, a different kind of social problem has emerged. Now, boys and girls living in fire-affected parts of Jharia find it difficult to find a match for themselves. Akhtari Bano, 75, has three marriageable sons and two daughters, but is not able to find anyone suitable for them.
“It is not that the proposals don’t come at all. But when people come and see that we’re sitting on the lap of a burning fire and that smoke is always emanating from our houses, they run away,” she says. “The government might be having fun playing with fire. But why play with our lives?”
Children play in the streets of Belgharia, a township that has been set to up accommodate residents of Jharia displaced by the fire.
People pilfer coal from state-run mines in Jharia.
A boy carrying a heavy load of coal over his head in Jharia. Many local children are forced to work pilfering coal from state-owned mines in the area.
A coal seam fire rages in a state-run mine in Jharia.
Smoke comes out of a drain along the main road in Jharia, hinting at the alarming levels of underground fires in area. A few years ago, fires damaged the Jharia railway station, leading to its eventual closure.