STORIES

Burning Land

India is currently the world's third-largest energy consumer. A significant proportion of the production for internal energy needs comes from Jharia coal mines in Jharkhand state, in the east of the country. Alongside the official Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL) coal trade non-conventional (and illegal) mining has flourished. Only a fifth of those living in the area are employed by coal companies. Here, underground fires have been burning for more than a century. But in recent decades open-cast mining has also brought the flames to the surface with devastating consequences for the local population.
Life expectancy of Jharia villagers is reduced by at least ten years. Airborne particulate matter (PM), largely associated with handling coal, exceeds India’s air quality standard. Pollutants in the air result in chronic respiratory diseases like bronchitis and asthma or pneumoconiosis, which is caused by the accumulation of fine dust particles in the lungs. Decades of underground mining have created a web of galleries under Jharia ground, full of small pieces of coal that easily catches fire. As a result, the land is extremely susceptible to subsidence, putting at risk the lives of the inhabitants, who get injured or even die after being sucked into flaming sinkholes in the ground. For the same reason, their houses suffer from severe cracks along the walls and sometimes they even collapse.
Extensive and open cast mining has made Jharia an extremely dangerous place to live in. Both the government and BCCL have attempted to solve the problem over the years by moving people out of Jharia but activists think BCCL only wants the villagers to leave, so the mines can be expanded. In order to find new places for the resettlement, in  2006 the Government started a program of field acquisition in an area on the margins of Jharia coal mines. The area includes many villages, like Belgharia: here new houses are built for Jharia working people, transforming a once agricultural village into a township. Compensation for the land acquired has been provided only to landowners with more than 2 acres; most of the tenants and workers are now left without alternative incomes. In its first seven years only around 10,000 have been moved there and many of them complain bitterly about the inadequacy of their new accommodation and the absence of basic amenities.