Burning issues

In a good week, Laccho Devi will shift more than two tonnes of coal, in 50kg baskets balanced on top of her head. Loading coal at a depot in Goladi, at the heart of the Jharia coal fields 300km west of Calcutta, she might earn between £6 and £11 a week.

For eight hours a day, Devi bakes beneath the sun, its power undiminished by the clouds of coal dust, smog and pollution coughed up across this vast mining region in the eastern state of Jharkhand.

In the evening, when she trudges the 15 minutes to her home in the village of Lantenganj, there is still no respite from the heat, for all around fires burn unchecked above and below ground in the coal fields on which she depends for a living. “Lantenganj is engulfed in fire,” she says. “It is just red, red, red, red.”

At the edge of the village, fires burn in craters amid the ruins of abandoned homes. Past a rupture the size of a dump truck, the earth pitches forward perilously, teetering over the maw of the abandoned first phase of the Ghanudih opencast mine.

Lantenganj is one of dozens of villages that have grown up around Jharia, a town of 100,000, swelling the area’s population close to 500,000. These are the people clinging on in a region where scores of underground coal fires make day-to-day life almost unbearable – and who are at the centre of the struggle over India’s energy needs.

Lantenganj is relatively lucky – the earth here has never opened up and swallowed one of its residents whole. In nearby Indra Nagar, 55-year-old Sundari Devi went for a walk one evening in 2008 and fell into a hole; her body was never recovered. In the village of Kujama Basti, Jyoti Sinha, 15, plummeted to her death when the ground collapsed beneath her feet, hollowed out from below by flames. It took rescue workers hours to recover her scorched body.

The fire under Lantenganj is one of at least 67 roiling beneath the Jharia coalfields, a region first exploited for its vast coal reserves by the British in the late 19th century. But archaic mining methods triggered fires, fed by the very coal the empire’s miners were after. They burn on to this day, trapping nearly 1.5 billion tonnes of India’s best coking coal – coal the country needs to realise its ambitious plans to increase steel production from 80 million tonnes a year to 200 million tonnes by 2020.

India is in the midst of a near-overwhelming energy crisis. A cumbersome mining permissions process, combined with an inefficient government near-monopoly, has created acute energy shortages, even though the country sits on the world’s fifth-largest coal reserves, at 286 billion tonnes. Nearly 28 per cent of those reserves lie in the state of Jharkhand, according to the Ministry of Coal. Yet India is projected to import nearly 200 million tonnes in the fiscal year ending in March 2013, and even towns such as Jharia, in the heart of coal country, experience frequent power cuts. In July, the world’s worst blackout left nearly half the country without electricity for two days.

The waste caused by allowing precious coal reserves to burn is “a concern, because we need whatever coal we can get from domestic sources”, says Arvind Mahajan, head of natural resources at KPMG India. “More needs to be done in terms of making sure that we prevent more of these fires from starting.”

In fact, the government’s decision more than a decade ago to convert from underground mining to mainly opencast mining accelerated the fires by exposing more coal to more oxygen, according to Professor Gurdeep Singh, head of the Centre of Mining Environment at the Indian School of Mines in Dhanbad, 10km from Jharia. Coal exposed to oxygen can ignite at temperatures as low as 104F.

Coal fires are by no means unique to India. China has, by some estimates, thousands of such subterranean fires. Yet Jharkhand’s are the most concentrated, and because the area, like all of India, is so densely populated, the most potentially catastrophic. Singh fears that a long-burning fire in a huge reserve beneath Jharia will one day cause the town to collapse.

Extinguishing the fires – which have forced railways, roads and rivers to be rerouted – is no longer an option, he says. “The only way to fight the fire is to extract the coal, because that is the main source of energy. This is a national loss.”

And, unfortunately, the only way to get at that coal is to shift the people who live on top of it.

Ramdhani Ghuijan

In the new township of Belgharia, about an hour’s autorickshaw ride from Lantenganj, Ashok Paswan watches from his roof as the hazy sun sets over row upon row of squat, yellow buildings stained a sickly black. The dirty lanes below run with sewage. Families as large as 12 are crammed into tiny flats; most people are unemployed and TB is rife, as is alcoholism.

Belgharia is all the state has to show for the 16 years since it announced plans to relocate the residents of Jharia to a place out of reach of the fires – and away from precious coal going to waste. The government allocated Rs71.1bn(£815m) to the relocation plan, under which 55,000 affected families were to be moved by 2016.

By the end of 2011, just over 1,000 families had been relocated to Belgharia, according to the 2011/2012 annual report of government-controlled Coal India, which through its Bharat Coking Coal Ltd subsidiary owns most of the mines and is funding the relocation. The annual report does not give a figure for how much of the £815m has been spent so far.

Paswan, 42, came to Belgharia with his family from the village of Idlipati, which is now mostly a smoking pile of rubble. He grins a weary smile of resignation: “We were happier in the old place,” he says. He does not work – there are no jobs in Belgharia, he says. Easily one-third of the Rs100-Rs150 (£1.15-£1.70) Paswan would earn as a loader in the mines would be eaten up by the fare for the 10km journey. The power supply in Belgharia is intermittent, and while water is more reliable, other than a primary school little else has been provided: no hospital, no market, no proper sewerage system. Earlier this year, the lack of a Muslim burial ground prompted one family to bring a dead relative’s body to the relocation office and begin to dig a grave in its grounds. Officials promised to build a cemetery, but months later work has yet to start.

One member of the committee involved in approving the relocation plan, who did not want to be named, says that he once asked why the needs of the locals hadn’t been considered. “I was told that the villagers don’t want pukka homes; they want to live in a single room with their cattle and their chullah [open coal-fed stove].”

An underground fire in the village of Lantenganj

That is, perhaps, a fair description of the lives of those who still live on top of the coal fires, though they might quibble with the word “want”. They complain that things have got worse since the inception of the relocation plan, with many believing that the government’s desire for the coal buried beneath their homes is driving it to allow the fires to burn, rather than trying to extinguish them.

The government “doesn’t do anything”, says Jagdish Bhuniya, a manual labourer who lives in Lantenganj. “They didn’t do anything when the fire was small, and now that it is big they don’t do anything – their only motive to shift us is [the coal under] this land.”

Residents of this and other villages say that underground blazes have actually spread, and that the drive towards opencast mining means that more and more toxic gases are being coughed up. Villagers in Lantenganj complain that those gases are leaking into their homes, leaving them with persistent coughs and headaches.

But that is the least of the health problems plaguing Jharia, according to Dr Gopal Chatterjee, who runs a clinic in the city of Dhanbad. “A lot of contribution comes from the smoke emanating from those fires,” he says. “That does add to respiratory problems – bronchial asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, tuberculosis of the lungs, upper and lower respiratory tract infections.” Chatterjee estimates that at least 30 per cent of his patients’ diseases have been triggered by smoke.

Surender Varma manages a team of labourers in the Goladi depot in Jharia. “[India is] a rich country – there are lots of mineral resources [but still] people are poor, and even then people are dying,” he says. “There is so much corruption – the ones who … benefit are not the ones who live with it.”

Certainly, Jharkhand’s recent political history is mired in scandal. A 2012 Human Rights Watch report called the local government “among the weakest and most corrupt in India”. The region is also plagued by its notoriously violent coal mafia, whose many rackets include extracting coal from abandoned mines. Poverty-stricken workers are paid even less than meagre legitimate wages and in the fairly frequent event that an abandoned mine collapses, they must leave any bodies for fear of being booked for trespassing and theft by the police. So well-known are the bloody rivalries of the coal mafia that they were depicted earlier this year in the film Gangs of Wasseypur, a two-part Tarantino-esque epic.

The government denies any sinister motives in the grindingly slow relocation process, or its inability to extinguish the fires. Indeed, A.K. Sarkar, Jharkhand’s additional secretary of mines, says that the residents are being stubborn. “They have been given the option of moving out and rehabilitation but they are not willing to move out,” he says. “They are not taking the matter seriously – and they are all talking about God. [They say], ‘If God is willing, then we can survive. No one can kill us.’”

Muntu Bhuniya does want to move to Belgharia. But try as he might, he says he cannot secure his family’s relocation from the cluster of ramshackle huts that houses his community of coal scavengers in Bokapahari, not far from Lantenganj. “There is no alternative but Belgharia,” he says, standing shirtless in a stained lungi. “Is it better? No. But that is what we have to do.”

Belgharia, one of the towns built to resettle families from Jharia. Residents complain of no work and poor conditions

Although the fires under his home no longer erupt in flame, smoke still leaks through blackened cracks in dry rock beds, as do streams and clouds of methane, nitrous oxide, sulphur oxide, particulate selenium and arsenic. The air is dry and acrid. Children teeter from foot to foot, the ground too hot to stand barefoot for long.

Families can only be allocated a flat in Belgharia after their current accommodation is surveyed, and they receive an official government approval card. But Bhuniya says surveyors have come just twice in the past few years – including once at midday, when the men were at work. When they returned a second time, some of Bhuniya’s neighbours chased them away, wary of being forcibly removed from their land. He went directly to the government office to submit his name, but has yet to hear back.

Government recognition would also bring access to a food-subsidy programme, albeit one that is legendarily graft-ridden. “If we are recognised, then we won’t be so deprived,” Bhuniya says. “It will raise us up, even if we are still scavengers.”

There is little those living in the fire-affected villages can do to contest their situation – full days in the sun hauling coal for a couple of dollars ensures their time is occupied with survival. Protest is left instead to the better-off of Jharia like Ashok Agarwal, who, in his cramped office in town, points left and right to two underground fires, 300m and 500m away, which are creeping toward the city. Agarwal, a businessman, heads the Jharia Coalfield Bachao Samiti, an advocacy group made up of mostly local traders that fights for better relocation packages for the villagers.

Agarwal has spent 15 years fighting, and says that little has changed in Jharia. He believes that there’s only one way this ends.“The townspeople say, you [shouldn’t] talk about leaving this town, we must fight to keep it. But this is a losing battle, because there is an endless appetite for coal in this country – and eventually it must be fed,” he says. “So we can prolong Jharia, 30, 40, 50 years, but it has an expiration date.”

Some locals, such as Nanhey Khan, who owns two autorickshaws, are holding out for better deals. Khan’s home in Indra Chowk, just a few hundred metres from Jharia, collapsed a few years ago, having been smoking for decades. “If the [proper] compensation is given, then we are ready to go,” says Khan. “Because this is the land of the black diamond, and they need that black diamond.”

Neil Munshi is an FT reporter based in Mumbai.

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