By Sadhan Mukherjee*
India has completed an inglorious century with the Jharia coal fields (JCF) fire. It has been raging since 1916. Just the other day, a father and a son were walking along their usual path when the earth subsided and the duo met their fiery death. This is nothing new. It has been happening ever since the coal fire was first detected in the JCF.
Earth is subsiding in JCF, buildings are going down and even human beings besides animals, are dying and getting afflicted with gas poisoning. Miners’ flats are developing cracks and collapsing. The coal mining has not stopped as the area has one of the best coking coals used in steel-making. The first land subsidence was noticed over a century ago when in 1916 Bhowra colliery near Dhanbad reported this.
Mining started here in the late 1800s. Though subterranean coal fire was noticed in 1916, there was no effort at containing it. Now some 70 fires are raging in the JCF which cover more than 100 sq miles. Travel on trains running on the railway track in the night, you will see fires burning throwing up flames some times.
Coal mining is a central subject and the government does not want to stop the mining; instead the government is trying to move villages and mining settlements from the affected areas. Though a lot of money has been spent on resettlement, many residents have declined to move.
There is an additional problem. Much of the coal mining in the JCF is done by open mining which expose the coal to open air facilitating their catching fire. It is said that this coal has several minerals which when exposed to oxygen get heated and burst into flame.
It is estimated that more than 37 million tonnes of coal have already been lost due to fire and another 1.7 billion tonnes and more cannot be mined due to fire. It is however not only an economic loss. The burning coal releases all sorts of gases and particles in the air that are health hazard; some of them are carcinogenic.
It is not that JCF is alone suffers such coal fires. Similar fires are there in China and USA. It is reportedly somewhat contained in USA but not in China. The only way out seems to be to stop using carbon-based fuel. But will that stop the fire now? Probably not, as its logic is cruel; as long as fuel is there, fire will burn. Only the residual damage can be minimised by stopping mining.
Another problem in JCF is that according to mining rules, the pits dug to extract coal should be back filled with the same soil removed for mining. To save cost this is not done leaving huge empty spaces with gaping holes. Before nationalisation, private mine owners did not pay any attention to check possibilities of such fires. The mining was also largely haphazard and unscientific. Now the country, especially the people of the region are paying for the mine owners’ lust for profit.
After nationalisation of coal mines, the coking coal area of Jharia and Raniganj was brought under the Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL) set up in 1972. Some attempts were made by BCCL to control or extinguish the fire. Some 20 exercises were undertaken, of which 10 were successful. Some 595 affected sites have since been identified and nearly 65000 households face the danger of earth gobbling them up.
It is estimated that nearly 100,000 families need to be rehabilitated and resettled. After the intervention of the Supreme Court, government chalked out a master plan and set up in 2004 a Jharia Rehabilitation and Development Authority (JRDA) to deal with this massive rehabilitation programme.
The JRDA operates under the Jharkhand government and it also faces enormous problems. Its work is not easy as land acquisition in non-coal bearing areas is a difficult task as also to motivate the endangered families to move out. The JRDA is supposed to complete the work in 12 years. Not much has been accomplished as the data from the office of the Minister of Coal shows that only 2612 affected families of BCCL mines, as of March 2017, have moved.
The JRDA has been able to build only 3072 houses and 1437 families have shifted there. By end of 2017 another 16000 families will be resettled, according to JRDA.
Many of the already resettled also complain about the bureaucratic style of JRDA. According to 101Reporters.com, since the Lalten Basti of Sijua block was swallowed up in November 2014, its 640 residents have been reportedly paid only Rs.10000 as compensation. Many are still awaiting JRDA flats.
People say that though JCF has brought prosperity to the region and the mine-owners, it has brought only misery for the poor villagers of the area.
Meanwhile the Fire in the Womb of Mother Earth continues endangering the lives and property of the people in the area with no respite in the foreseeable future.