Fires of Jharia spell death and disease for villagers

The inhabitants of a remote village at the heart of Indias coal industry brave deadly sinkholes and toxic gases simply to survive

In the village of Liloripathra, in a remote corner of Indias eastern Jharkhand state, mother-of-three Sushila Devi grips the hands of two women sitting on either side of her. Coal fires spew clouds of smoke into the already heavy, polluted air.

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    At about 8pm, a policeman cradling a small body wrapped in black plastic bags emerges through the smoke and the crowds that have gathered around her home. He has come to deliver the body of her 13-year-old daughter Chanda, killed along with two others from the village when a coal mine caved in on top of them. They had been scavenging in a colliery operated by Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL), a subsidiary of state-owned Coal India.

    Chanda was a very beautiful, but quiet girl. I cant believe God gave such a girl to me, Devi recalls, after identifying the body.

    In the mornings after shed woken up, shed comb her hair and put lipstick on and then ask me how she looked before she left for the mine. That was her routine every day.

    At dawn the next morning, the village mourns as the victims bodies are loaded into the back of a truck and transported to the banks of the river Damodar, which straddles the border separating the states of Jharkhand and West Bengal. In nearby woodland, a group of men from the village take turns to dig three shallow graves, before bringing the bodies to be buried.

    Relatives console Sushila Devi outside her home on the morning of her daughters burial

    Custom dictates that women should not attend burials, but Chandas younger sister Laxhmi has persuaded the men to make an exception for her. Shrouded in white, she watches from a distance as her sisters blackened body is lowered into the ground.

    Accidents and fatalities of this nature are not uncommon across the 110 square miles of land that make up the Jharia coalfields, the heartland of Indias coal industry. According to the ministry of coals annual report for 2017-18, BCCL reported 27 serious incidents and 15 fatalities between 2015 and 2017. Local activists believe the numbers could be much higher; the data doesnt include accidents that took place outside the mines, or the deaths of those who werent employed by BCCL.

    BCCL have been running the mines in Jharia since the government nationalised the coking coal industry in 1971. In a rush to curtail financial losses and meet the countrys staggering energy demands, BCCL began switching from underground mining to open cast mining (where coal is mined from the surface), an easier and more profitable method of extraction. Over time, vast expanses of land were stripped and blasted into 400ft-deep pits, which today produce more than 32m tonnes of coal a year.

    But this unregulated expansion has been at the expense of the communities who once lived off the land. With few jobs available to those without a formal education, many of Jharias residents work as coal loaders for roughly 1,000 rupees (about 11) a week, or risk their lives scavenging coal to scrape a living.

    Three miles from Liloripathra, in Laltanganj village, a crater of fire one of at least 67 fires that have been burning under Jharia since 1916 coughs up gases laden with carbon monoxide and sulphur oxide. No one knows for certain what caused the fire to start, but scientists suspect that coal spontaneously combusted at an abandoned mine that hadnt been decommissioned properly. There is, though, agreement that it was the shift to open cast mining that exposed the flames to oxygen, which in turn caused the fires to increase in ferocity and break the surface, hampering decades-long efforts to put them out.

    Fires on Rajapur coal mine are encroaching on Bastakloa village

    Villagers in Laltanganj complain of persistent coughs, headaches and pain on the lungs. Respiratory diseases like tuberculosis, bronchitis and asthma are all common according to Dr SK Bhagania, a physician at a private clinic in Jharia town, a 10-minute walk from the village. He estimates that more than 25% of the ailments he treats may have been triggered by the fumes.

    But the fires pose an even greater threat to the lives of those who live and work among them. In June 2017, teenager Rahim Khan and his father Bablu Khan, aged 40, were sucked into the ground when an underground fire raging beneath them caused a sinkhole to open up outside their front door. Sundari Devi, 55, faced a similar fate while walking home through the village of Indra Nagar; her body was never recovered. Smoking piles of rubble, once peoples homes, now help demarcate one village from the next.

    In 2008, BCCL began implementing a resettlement programme, managed by a body called the Jharia Rehabilitation and Development Authority, to relocate people living in fire-affected areas. In their master plan, the JRDA said that at least 79,159 families would need to be rehoused by 2021. But in 2016, the former minister of coal, Piyush Goyal, admitted to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Indias parliament, that so far only 4,049 families approximately 5% of those eligible had been relocated.

    In Belgharia, BCCLs flagship resettlement site, Viljai Bauri looks out from the roof of a faded apartment block, one of 400 that make up the township in a new development that will house the next batch of families who lose their homes to the fires.

    In 2008, Bauri was relocated to Belgharia from the village of Bokapahari, which has since been swallowed up by flames. Home is now an 8ft by 8ft room next to a sewage pipe, which he shares with his wife Sumo Devi and 11 members of her family. There isnt space for all of them, so they take it in turns to sleep on the floor.

    I am very angry. The health of my wife has deteriorated I think she has TB, he says. There are no health facilities here. They came and asked us to spit in a pot, but then never returned. Weve been neglected by the government. At least in Bokapaharai we could access hospitals and see a doctor.

    Belgharia township at dusk. In 2008, BCCL began relocating residents of fire-affected areas to purpose-built towns of this type

    Like many in Belgharia, Bauri used to work as a coal loader before he was relocated. He now works as a labourer, but struggles to find regular work. I usually get around seven days work a month its not enough. As a coal loader I could work every day, he says.

    The majority of Belgharias residents are unemployed and alcoholism is widespread. There are few options available to people like Bauri to better their situation. Local councillors and businessmen, like Ashok Agarwai of the campaign group Jharia Coalfield Bachao Samiti, are calling for better resettlement packages for the towns residents.

    Theres a difference between rehabilitation and compensation, says Agarwai. Compensation is a lump sum that you give to someone, whereas rehabilitation means youve got to not only relocate people to a new home, but give them a job and a livelihood. Otherwise, you cannot call it rehabilitation. There are no jobs in Belgharia. As a result, many have ended up back in Jharia looking for work.

    BCCLs primary objective is to maximise the amount of coal they extract, irrespective of its impact on the local population, or on whether they live or die.

    Raj Maheshwaram, in charge of law and order in the district, and one of the first officials on the scene of the roof collapse, admits that BCCL needs to do more to prevent villagers going into the mines illegally. I dont think there is a sufficient number of security personnel at the mines and in this case the security officials have failed in their duty, he says.

    All the families living in slum areas need to be provided with better housing and a livelihood. But BCCL cannot provide for everyone that needs to be relocated with a job. Its very difficult now as the industry has been mechanised we need to find alternative employment options. Perhaps BCCL could provide them with loans to buy vehicles or set up small businesses?

    Anil Kumar Jha, the chairman of Coal India, believes safety measures at the mines are in line with international standards. There are accidents and people have died also. But such types of incidents are reducing with each passing year. Our safety parameters can be compared with any other country, he says.

    Women scavenge for coal on one of Jharias many state-owned mines

    Back in Liloripathra, crowds have gathered around the vehicles that have pulled up outside Sushila Devis house. A smartly-dressed man from a local political party gets out of one of the cars, sandwiched between two armed guards. He has come to share his condolences with the victims families.

    They agree to meet him, but are sceptical about his motives. There is a local election in 2020 and it is not uncommon for politicians and councillors in the state to exploit local tensions to garner support to win votes.

    Once the commotion has subsided, a local government representative waits to break the news to Sushila Devi that, as her daughter was trespassing on the mine, she isnt entitled to any compensation from BCCL or the government.

    Im going to jump into one of the fires I have no intention of continuing my life, says Devi.

    The 250 rupees about 2.80 that Chanda earned each day, collecting coal before school, was the familys only source of income.

    Original Article : HERE ; This post was curated & posted using : RealSpecific


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