Jharia–Fire Underground

Children of India's Burning Coalfields

Roli Srivastava

Coal workers of Jharia hope education can help the next generation win cleaner, healthier jobs in a region that has been wedded to dirty, dangerous mining for over a century.

It's an unusual dream for a resident of India's oldest coalfield, Jharia, where fires rage underground, bare trees stand guard morosely around mines spewing dust and fumes–and where coal has provided work for at least four generations.

Kurmi, 32, was the first in his family to get education: a diploma in mining. Now he and many other young people in the region want to leave their soot-blighted lives behind, even as coal production soars.

Jharia is synonymous with the coking coal used in steel-making, a valuable commodity as India imports more than 57 million tonnes of it annually, spending upwards of 450 million rupees ($5.53 million), government data shows.

Daily coal production in Jharia–where technical issues mean only about a third of its more than 100 mines are functional–this year jumped to 100,000 tonnes, up from an average of 80,000 tonnes until 2021, local mining officials said.

India is boosting coal production nationwide to cut import costs and meet rising energy demand.

Despite the upward trend, the eastern state of Jharkhand, where Jharia is located, launched an effort in November, 2022 to study the impacts of expected future coal-mine closures on the local economy and its people.

The announcement of a new "Sustainable Just Transition Taskforce" pointed to India's commitments, made on the global stage, to cut climate-heating emissions to net zero by 2070 and reach 500 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity by 2030.

With 13 of Jharkhand's 24 districts rich in coal reserves, preparation for a future without the polluting fossil fuel must start now, said Ajay Kumar Rastogi, chair of the taskforce, which he said was the first such body in any Indian state.

"Jharia is one of the oldest coalfields and the entire economy revolves around coal. Once there is withdrawal, there will be an impact. The production peaks will be followed by decline," Rastogi predicted.

The taskforce wants to plan for change across the entire "coal ecosystem" to ensure no one is left out and even those who illegally scavenge coal–not just formal and informal workers–have livelihood opportunities after mining ends.

But a future beyond coal appears a distant prospect in Jharia, where children walk to school through smouldering rocks and mothers scavenge coal to pay for their tuition.

Aarti Paswan, 21, a postgraduate student at a university 25 kilometres (15.53 miles) from home, hopes to pass the exams to enter India's Border Security Force, inspired by a Bollywood film she saw as a child that showed soldiers braving bullets to save their country.

But, for now, she must figure out where to bathe after the canal she used before was cut off by hillocks of debris deposited from recent mine excavations.

"I pick coal as it funds my travel to the university," she said, standing near stoves belching out smoke in Jharia's Golakdhi settlement. "I don't want to do this. I want a job to serve my country."

At both the national and local levels, moving away from coal will mean tackling how to replace jobs in coal-reliant regions like Jharia, where the first literate generation has emerged and is seeking alternative work.

Parents who inhale toxic fumes, gather coal in baskets and are forced to buy drinking water on a daily basis do not want their children to inherit this kind of life.

They see coal not only as a polluting resource but one that stopped yielding decent jobs and money years ago.

Sanjay Kumar Pandit, 35, who picks coal illegally, said local people had tried to find jobs in mines but outsourcing companies were bringing in labour from other states.

Pandit, whose father was an informal mine worker but earned fixed weekly wages, said the future was even more bleak for the next generation, as Jharia's coal reserves will not last forever.

"All we will be left with is the debris of mines," he said. "Our lives are over, but the future of our children must be protected."

India this year announced its first plan for a socially fair shift away from coal production in areas where mines have been shut, and the federal coal ministry refers to "just transition" in its action plan for 2022-23.

Although the government has announced an expansion of coal mines and new coal-fired power plants to ensure energy security in the next few years, it plans to reduce the share of coal in its overall energy mix by the end of this decade.

Coal accounts for nearly half of installed power capacity in India, while renewable energy sources including solar and wind provide about 30%. The country aims to meet 50% of its energy requirements from renewables by 2030.

Santosh Patnaik, who manages fair transition programmes at campaign group Climate Action Network South Asia, said young people in coal communities want to break out of the grinding cycle of poverty their families were trapped in for decades.

"This is a generation ready to move away from coal, which is encouraging. A just transition plan needn't wait for mines to close–it is needed now. Jharkhand could set an example for other states," said Patnaik.

For now, a layer of dust, smoke and soot hangs over Jharia, its coalfield dotted by multiple fires–595 of them, according to the official count. In some places, huge flames leap out of coal pits, while smaller fires burn in other areas, like decorative torches in a seaside resort.

The fires, some of which have burned for a century, were caused by opencast mining, a method that has largely replaced underground mining in the past two decades, exposing large volumes of coal to the air.

The type of coal found here is quicker to ignite, said researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology–India School of Mining (IIT-ISM) in Dhanbad district, where Jharia is located.

The fires have hollowed out parts of the earth, causing concrete roads and homes to cave in over the past 20 years and resulting in deaths.

Official surveys show that the fire area, which once spread over 8 sq km or nearly 2,000 acres–the size of about 1,000 Olympic-size soccer fields–has shrunk to 1.8 sq km.

Several fire areas have been excavated and the debris piled up into hillocks, known as overburdens, where researchers say fires continue to burn.

Some 55,000 families–or at least 200,000 people–have been impacted by the fires, according to a 2004 estimate that is still considered to be the official count of the number of people who need to be relocated.

Of these, only 4,000 families have so far moved to a colony built two decades ago, about 8 kilometres from the mining area.

Even though their neighbourhoods resemble a war zone, people resist moving to the colony, citing lack of facilities such as drinking water and proper drains.

But their main concern is that relocating will disconnect them from the mining area that provides their only income.

 Quick and easy solutions are elusive because of absence of any significant industry other than coal.

In addition, Jharia falls inside the Dhanbad municipal limits and so is not designated as a rural area, meaning residents are excluded from the state-run rural jobs scheme that offers 100 days of paid labour every year.

D D Ramanandan, general secretary of the All India Coal Workers Federation, said Jharia faced a complex problem in creating new sources of income.

"Other coal towns have thermal power plants, small industries and also open space. Here, there is no space between habitations and coalfields and there is nothing else ... but coal," he explained.

Fires and mines can be seen from Jharia's roadsides, some less than a mile from busy markets, and narrow lanes lined with smoke-belching coal stoves snake through homes leading to the burning pits.

Mining in Jharia began about a century ago and the area was flush with coal jobs until the early 1990s, drawing workers from neighbouring states to help operate and manage its mines.

The workers' neighbourhoods that sit next to the mines sprang up four to five decades ago, around the same time private mines were taken over by the government.

Families have stayed there even as jobs have dried up with the mechanisation of mines and outsourcing to private labour agencies that source workers from other states to keep costs low.

Local activists estimate that nearly 100,000 people scavenge coal due to lack of other jobs, and even those who do tough work like loading coal onto rail wagons miss the earlier days and lament the dearth of alternative options as education levels have improved.

Jharkhand, one of India's most impoverished states, has launched several plans to improve living conditions and job opportunities, but they have not succeeded, locals said.

Meanwhile, the expanding mines are swallowing more homes, and their inhabitants are also being asked to move, swelling the number of families that need to be relocated.

In the next two years, the region's newly-launched just transition taskforce aims to study work opportunities in sectors like agriculture, forestry and renewable energy, as well as financing models to help small and medium-sized businesses set up shop.

Taskforce head Rastogi said mine closures would escalate hunger and fuel social unrest–but once coal production is phased down, the land could be put to better use to generate jobs for young people.

Some young men have migrated to cities to work on construction sites, but the high cost of rental accommodation and food deters many from leaving.

A few miles from the burning coalfields, at a busy junction in the town of Dhanbad, a state-run institute runs free courses on fashion design and beauty care. A few of those enrolled are from Jharia.

Anu Kumari, 17, is learning to thread eyebrows and do facials, and hopes to find a job at a beauty parlour one day.

Their parents, meanwhile, are seeking more concrete action from the government to improve their coal-dependent lives, to train their offspring and to build cleaner industries that can create more job opportunities.

Anita Devi, a 32-year-old mother of four, illegally gathers coal for nearly 12 hours a day near the Gesadi mine, selling it in sacks for 100 rupees each.

As she works amid burning seams of coal, her nails, face and feet are black with ash–but she sees the relentless work as the only way to secure a better future for her children.

[Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation]

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Vol 55, No. 33, Feb 12 - 18, 2023