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‘We Live On Top Of An Oven. There Is Burning Coal Beneath Our Feet’

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By Ashok Kumar for Youth Ki Awaaz:

Land subsidence or the sinking under of land, is almost an everyday occurrence in Bhowra Colliery of Jharia Coal field (JCF) in Dhanbad, Jharkhand. This happens, among other reasons, due to the coal burning underground which weakens the top soil.

Blessed with prime coking coal deposits and scores of underground infernos (coal fire) raging in the coalfield, land subsidence is triggered every other day in this densely populated district.

According to the government owned BCCL (Bharat Coking Coal Limited), which operates most of the mines in Dhanbad district, 2016 marks the centenary of the first land-subsidence triggered by an underground inferno in Bhowra colliery.

Ever since, land-subsidence has claimed several lives in the district over the years. The situation is hazardous for the BCCL exactly for these reasons.

For the record, JCF is the one of the most exploited coalfields in India, with mining going on there since over a century. Why? Because of its valuable metallurgical grade coal reserves. Mining in JCF was initially in the hands of private entrepreneurs who had limited resources and a lack of desire for scientific mining. The mining methods were both opencast as well as underground and caused extensive damage.

Opencast mining (where a pit or tunnel is dug into the ground) blocks were never back filled, leaving them open like a well, seen even today in the form of abandoned mines. According to DGMS (Directorate General of Mines Safety) mining laws, after mining, the pit dug for extracting coal should be back filled with the same soil, removed earlier before mining. But here in JCF, such abandoned mines were never back filled. So you have a large expanse of land peppered with gaping dangerous, deep pits.

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On top of that, extraction of thick coal layers beneath the surface at shallow depths has damaged the ground surface; subsidence and pot-holes and cracks reach up to the surface, increasing chances of spontaneous heating of coal seams or the upper beds of coal that are mined.

“Once underground coal seams are exposed to oxygen they catch fire (since methane trapped underneath comes into contact with oxygen); the fires may continue to burn for several years, depending on the availability of coal and oxygen,” Dr. Gurdeep Singh, formerly with the Indian School of Mines and now vice chancellor of Vinoba Bhave University, Hazaribagh told YKA.

“Coal-fires and subsidence have occurred in all parts of the world. India, USA, Indonesia, South Africa, Australia, China, Germany… however, their nature and magnitude differ.” 

In Jharia, they occur mainly because “coal was extracted using unscientific methods in the past,” Dr. Singh told YKA. “JCF has been the epitome of unplanned, unscientific mining ever since the first mining activity began here in 1894. Today, people of the region are paying for it” he adds.

Today, out of the 77 fires identified, 67 still rage in JCF, engulfing an area of around 9 square km of the JCF, according to BCCL. So far, 595 affected sites have been identified in the area. The families that reside in the nearly 65,000 houses to be vacated, do not know when they might be swallowed by the earth beneath their feet.

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After the nationalisation of coal mines, several initiatives were taken to kill underground infernos. Between 1976 and 1988, no less than 20 fire-fighting exercises were undertaken. 10 fires were overcome and extinguished. Several others were controlled but not defeated completely.

It has been estimated that about 37 million tonnes of good quality prime coking coal has been destroyed by these fires, and about another 1864 million tons of coal lies locked up, beyond extraction, because of these fires.

In 2004, after the intervention of the Supreme Court, the Central government chalked out a master-plan to deal with fires and subsidence in 45 BCCL collieries. The task of rehabilitation and resettlement of 100,000 families from 595 endangered sites was given to the Jharia Rehabilitation and Development Authority (JRDA).

The JRDA was given the task to identify affected people living in leasehold areas of BCCL under JCF. The authority has since then been working on rehabilitation packages for shifting and rehabilitation of families living in subsidence-prone areas of JCF. There is also a welfare component to these rehabilitation packages.

That said, land acquisition in non-coal bearing areas of Dhanbad is hindering the process of rehabilitation. JRDA was given 12 years to resettle people living in perilous blocks of JCF.

According to a parliament answer provided by the Minister of Coal in March this year, only 2,612 affected families of BCCL employees have been resettled. For the 1,20,000 non-BCCL families, JRDA under the govt. of Jharkhand, has constructed only 3072 houses in Belgoria rehabilitation township, where 1437 families had been shifted, the minister stated.

Gopalji, resettlement officer of JRDA, says land acquisition is what’s slowing down implementation of rehabilitation schemes. “Despite this, rehabilitation process is progressing smooth and steady. Another 16,000 families will be resettled by the end of 2017. We are committed to completing the process by 2021,” says Gopalji, adding that JRDA is always ready to evacuate 100 families at a time in case of emergencies.

For all that, people living in subsidence-prone areas of JCF continue to risk life and limb, not to speak of loss to property, in the hope of getting a flat in a safe area someday.

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Vijay Paswan, who lives with his family in a dangerously cracked house in the subsidence-prone Kujama colony of Bastakola block of BCCL, says he will never leave unless it is to shift to a flat, and that too with “proper compensation.”

Describing living conditions, he says people don’t sleep outdoors out of fear of cave-ins, and there being no place to run.

Another resident, Gita Devi of Kujama, says, “We live on top of an oven. It is impossible to walk barefoot because of the burning coal beneath our feet, literally.”

Sarita Devi, a victim of subsidence in Lalten Basti of BCCL’s Sijua block complains that since getting displaced from her village, she’s still to get the promised reimbursement from the government.

“After our village was swallowed up by the earth, JRDA has only given us Rs. 10,000 as first installment of compensation,” she says. “The authorities had promised to give us a house each per family. Today, when we ask, we’re fobbed off with ‘flats are under construction’.”

For the record, Lalten Basti subsided in November 2014. The 640 residents of the village are still waiting to be given the promised safe dwelling.

Sarita Devi blames the mining industry for the destruction of vast swathes of JCF. “Though coal has brought prosperity as well to this region, it has made life impossible for poor people like us,” she says.

Ashok Kumar is a Dhanbad-based independent journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters. His work reflects social and political issues.

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