Fire Beneath Their Feet
Air Date: Week of August 24, 2007
(courtesy: Minerals, Mines and People)
All over the world there are fires in underground coalmines that have been burning for decades. Reporter Nilanjana Bhowmick reports from India's coal region on what it's like to live on ground that’s been spouting smoke and fire for 90 years.
GELLERMAN: This is Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman. Working in coalmines is a dirty, dangerous, too often, deadly occupation.
In Utah, authorities have given up hope for the six miners trapped by the collapse at the Crandall Canyon Mine. Three rescuers were also killed there trying to reach the men…and In China, almost 200 miners died this month after torrential rains flooded two coalmines there. Living near coalmines can also be dangerous.
Today we continue our series Generating Controversy: the Changing Climate of Coal with a visit to Jharia, in eastern India’s coal country where an underground coal fire has been smoldering for almost 100 years.
As reporter Nilanjana Bhowmick tells us, residents of Jharia say that life above the fire is a living hell.
[RANI DEVI SPEAKING IN BENGALI WITH ENGLISH TRANSLATION]
TRANSLATOR: I was cleaning the house when there was a crunching noise and the floor beneath me gave way. My feet went in and there was smoke all around.
[GOUR KARMAKER SPEAKING IN BENGALI]
TRANSLATOR: The floor dropped down by six feet almost. I had to pour 200 gallons of water, 50 bags of sand and 40 bags of gravel to repair the damage. If we were sleeping that night, we all would all have either choked or burnt to death.
BHOWMICK: Rani Devi and Gour Karmakar are a middle-aged couple who live in the village of Kumarabasti, the potter’s village, half an hour from the coal-mining town of Jharia. What collapsed the floor of their home that day was a mine fire that’s been slowly spreading in the area for 90 years, since 1916.
[WOMEN SPEAKING IN BENGALI]
TRANSLATOR: Because of the fire we stay outside with our children during the daytime and return only at nightfall. They have asked us to vacate this place and go but where will we go? This is the potters village and our livelihood is pottery. If we leave our livelihood we have nothing.
BHOWMICK: The potters actually use the roasted soil here in their work. There is also work in the mines. Mines that have active fires burning are closed. But others mines nearby are operating. Workers walk toward the elevators that take them underground to their shifts. They walk against a backdrop of smoke. Orange flames poke out from places where the rock glows red.
People here say what they fear most is losing a family member to a floor collapse, like the one at Rani Devi and Gour Kamakar’s home. But an outsider can’t help but notice another threat - the poisonous gases. People are sick. The children are most affected.
[SHANKAR MAHATO SPEAKING IN BENGALI]
TRANSLATOR: You see my son? He has been suffering since he was only one and a half months old. He had asthma ever since he was born. What can we do? We are poor people. We have accepted this as our fate.
BHOWMICK: Shankar Mahato lives in one of the villages over the fire. He sits at a medical clinic with his 18-month-old. He says his son has been diagnosed with pneumonia, asthma, and tuberculosis in his short life. Around us, people waiting to see the doctor look worn out. Most of them are coughing badly. Dr. Rajiv Agarwal, who has been practicing in the area for the last 20 years, explains how the gases affect people’s health.
[DR AGARWAL IN BENGALI AND ENGLISH]
TRANSLATOR: I mostly treat patients with tuberculosis, bronchial asthma. The damage is irreversible. Gases like carbon monoxide and methane hamper proper growth of children in this area.
BHOWMICK: The raging fires in the coalmines not only render the air unsuitable for breathing but also bring other practical problems. The only river that used to be a source of fresh water for the inhabitants of these villages has dried up and at best, produces some contaminated water. Jhuma Mahato and Kajri Billo:
[JHUMA MAHATO AND KAJRI BILLO IN BENGALI]
TRANSLATOR: We have to travel to Jharia town which is one and a half mile away from here. We go walking and bring the water back. People fight for just a bit of water. It is very tiring and troublesome.
BHOWMICK: The coalmines of this district are mostly owned by Bharat Coking Coal Limited, a subsidiary of India’s state-owned coal company. The coal fires are costing money, about 650 million dollars in lost high-grade coking coal so far.
That may be why Indian President APJ Abdul Kalam recently ordered the Indian Coal ministry to find a solution, and quickly. But quenching coal fires is difficult and often unsuccessful.
As for the people here, the government has come up with a plan to move the mainly government workers who live in Jharia town. But there are no such plans for the poorer people of the surrounding villages. The government calls them “encroachers,” and claims they don’t have the residence papers required of everyone in India. The villagers have just been asked to vacate the area and move to safer zones. District magistrate Bila Rajesh:
RAJESH: It is a chronic problem, in fact. The fire has been raging for nearly 100 years. It is definitely a very sensitive issue and it needs to be addressed urgently. People were under the impression that perhaps the fire should be controlled and people should not have to shift out from the place. Because they’ve been living there for generations, so they find it very difficult to think that why, “if our parents have lived here, if the past few generations have lived here, why not us as well?”
BHOWMICK: It’s true, many residents of the area say they prefer to stay. Swaroop Mondal is a member of the Save Jharia Organisation.
[SWAROOP MONDAL IN BENGALI]
TRANSLATOR: This is a historic city. It had agriculture, and some of the lowest food prices in the country, that’s even true today. Such a huge market will be destroyed – it’s just unthinkable.
BHOWMICK: India’s Coal Secretary, Prakash Chandra Parekh, however, claims residents are willing to relocate.
PAREKH: I went in the morning to one of those sites. There is not one person who said that he has any problem. They said “yes, as soon as you make it available, another place, we’ll move out of there.”
[MASALA GRINDING ON STONE, SOUND OF UTENSILS AND PEOPLE]
BHOWMICK: In the evening, women set out mud ovens and prepare dinner. Little girls are entrusted with kneading the dough for the chapati while their mothers grind spices. The men folk smoke and chat outside, sitting on beds of woven rope. At a glance, a normal village scenario. The only difference is that in most of India, people do these activities inside their homes. Here they do them outside, because at any moment the raging fire underneath could engulf them.
For Living On Earth, I’m Nilanjana Bhowmick, in Jharia, eastern India.
[MUSIC: Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan: “Mangte Hain Karam” Platinum Collection]
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