A Living Hell
Supratim Bhattacharjee, a documentary photographer, based in Kolkata, visits Jharia- an area famous for illegal mining activities…
While world over, governments are trying to phase out coal as a source of energy and replace it with solar or wind energy, in India dependence on coal is on a rise. Last year, the Indian government decided to open close to 40 new coal mines, inviting bids from private companies to operate them. While alternative sources of energy prove costlier to harness, the huge coal reserves in India provide an easy solution to meet the country's energy needs, burdened with a billion-plus population.
Coal mining releases harmful chemicals in the environment, including sulphur dioxide (SO2) and carbon dioxide (CO2). The smog and haze from mining lead to serious diseases. Further, these chemicals also contaminate water. In particular, minute particles of fly ash often settle in water bodies, and when consumed by humans cause irreversible damage to the body.
Unfortunately, in Jharia, children bear the brunt of the deadly coal mining. India's Mines Act of 1952 prohibits anyone under the age of 18 from working in coal mines. In Jharia, however, laws hold little meaning. It is an area infamous for illegal mining activities, where land mafias dictate their own laws. Jharia is source of high quality coal in India, an important ingredient of India’s growth story. Coal supports the iron and steel industry, which, along with its subsidiary industries, thrive in the Jharkhand-Bengal-Chhattisgarh region. A good number of India’s trains, until early 90s, depended on coal to produce that sweet whistle and chugging sound. Even today, over 65 percent of India’s power supply is generated from coal. Mining of coal in Jharia started in 1894, and has increased ever since. Today, Jharia is home to two large underground and nine large open cast mines.
India’s coal mines were nationalized in 1971, when 70 fires were discovered. Forty-six years into the formation of Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL), however, the fires raging underneath Jharia have only worsened, resulting in one of the world’s oldest and most widespread mine fires today. The first fire in Jharia mines was reported in 1916. It is not exactly known how the fire started. “Coal fires can be caused by lightening, forest fires, human accidents, and improper shutting down of old mines and are common across the world. The fire in Jharia started when the mines were owned by private businessmen who exploited local labour and cared little about the miners’ safety,” Ashish Thakur, a mining engineer who has lived in the area and has, over the years, developed keen interest in studying coal mine fires, told me.
I was also told the mafias force the villagers to risk their lives amidst alarming levels of pollution, underground fire, accidents, and frequent deaths. The villagers, unaware of their rights, have no alternative, but to agree to the labor without any kind of protective gear. At times they even consider selling their children to the mafias. According to a study by Yugank Goyal of the OP Jindal Global University, the mafias often derive power from “socially hierarchical relationships involving debt and/or caste” Another article published at the Yale School of the Environment in 2016, said: “the Jharia coalfield has a tradition of brutality. It and the neighbouring steel city of Dhanbad are notorious in India for being the home of coal mafias. These are criminal gangs that reputedly control trade unions, money lending, a huge clandestine trade in coal — and politics.”
“Coal fires are notoriously difficult to kill. There are thousands of active coal mine fires looming across the world,” Saurav Kumar, Assistant Mining Manager at BCCL, informed me. Add to this the effects of global warming, changing wind patterns, earthquakes, shifting of tectonic plates, and the menace of illegal mining accompanied with state apathy and corruption; the situation continues to get worse. According to BCCL estimates, the fires have already devoured about 37 million tonnes of coal. Another two billion tonnes of coal has become inaccessible, resulting in losses worth $220 billion.
Suvankar currently works as an assistant manager (mining) at the Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation (CESC) Limited in the nearby town of Asansol, West Bengal. Recalling his days of working at the mines of Jharia, he told: “Jharia is the only mine where you get coking coal, which is highly inflammable in nature. There is coal everywhere. When engineers and professionals mine it, they follow several procedures of safe mining. When locals mine coal illegally, all they need to do is dig a hole in the ground. This can be attained by simply blasting earth‘s surface using gunpowder or dynamite.”
India is often projected as the next superpower, an Asian giant. However, Jharia reminds me of quite the opposite — a continuity of the dark age! I am shocked and pained to see helpless people in Jharia’s mining community. Their pleading for help is echoing in the void, unheard and ignored. The idea behind documenting the lives of people in coal mining areas is not just to tell the world about the inhuman living conditions of coal mine workers, but also trigger collective action against the menace. The damage done by coal mining to the environment is precipitating climate change. It is a threat to human life and the environment. Humans should not only treat other humans with dignity, but also equally respect the environment. If we don’t wake up to the perils of coal mining now, we might rob the right to clean air from a whole generation. The time for action is now.- All pics courtesy the Supratim Bhattacharjee