Consigned to flames

Central and state authorities fiddle while underground coalfields burn in Jharia in the state of Jharkhand

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Saturday 30 November 2002

Consigned to flames

-- "Abandon all hope, all ye who enter"

This inscription that marks the gates of hell in Dante's Inferno could well be true for Jharia town in Jharkhand. For, the underground fires that have been raging in the coalfields here for over several decades are now beginning to engulf its thickly inhabited areas as well. And for the local people -- trapped between officialdom and realpolitik -- mere existence now means hell on earth.

Such is the intensity of the fires that even a mid-summer sun pales in the smoky haze that they generate. After dusk, the flames take on morbid hues. "Jharia resembles a cremation ground at night," says resident Rajesh Chauhan, drawing a chillingly apt analogy.

Two years ago, Chauhan watched aghast as the town's temple snapped into two. The next moment, flames leapt out from underneath spewing noxious gases. "The people of Jharia then realised that the underground fires have finally reached their doorstep," he recounts. In a move that had apathy written all over it, Bharat Coking Coal Limited (bccl) got a terse message painted on the damaged temple wall: 'Fire area prone to subsidence.' bccl is the public sector undertaking which mines coal under the township.

About 86 years ago, private companies too displayed similar insouciance when the first major blaze was reported in the Jharia mining complex -- the collieries that contain the country's finest coking coal. A recent bccl report titled 'Fire, subsidence and rehabilitation in bccl', blames "unscientific mining" by pre-nationalisation private mine owners "with little or no concern to control (the) fire" for the situation coming to such a pass. Left unattended and stoked by relentless mining activity, as many as 70 fires have erupted in Jharia since then. Out of these, 60 are widespread. This is a significant figure considering that India experienced 200 mine fires in all in the 20th century.

Some 150,000 miners, truck drivers, loaders and other workers brave this hazard to eke out a living. The fires have consumed about 42 million tonnes of India's best coking coal, rendering 1864 million tonnes out of bounds. Residents, meanwhile, live in constant fear of a major subsidence that can cause the entire town to collapse. Around 35,000 houses in the town are said to be under "immediate threat". Even as the burning question -- whether the fire can be extinguished or should local people be relocated -- remains unanswered, the issue has acquired strong political overtones.
Fiery row A fierce debate rages among scientists, activists and politicians over the ameliorative course that needs to be taken. The authorities have fuelled the controversy by speaking in different voices.

M M Sharma, deputy director (mine safety), Directorate-General of Mines Safety (dgms), says: "Only the fringe areas of Jharia are in danger." bccl also claims that the fire has been controlled "substantially" and is limited to only about 9 square kilometres (sq km) as against the earlier figure of 17.32 sq km.

But Jharkhand chief minister (cm) Babulal Marandi reignited the dispute recently by declaring that "the town must be shifted". This meant that the proposed relocation would affect the nearly 0.3 million population of Jharia, approximately 0.1 million houses and other buildings and a prospering economy. As local leaders across the political spectrum opposed the state government's move (see: "Smouldering row", Down To Earth , Vol 11, No 12, November 15, 2002), the cm was forced to do a rethink. "First, we need to have a proper rehabilitation plan in place," he told Down To Earth in a climbdown from his earlier stand.

Such a large-scale evacuation would, however, still contradict bccl's observation on having reined in the blaze. The company itself appears to be making contrasting claims, because its latest official position is that relocation has been necessitated as the fire is spreading.

The resettlement option has spawned numerous unsuccessful attempts to implement the other solution: putting out the fire. Several organisations and agencies -- from the Planning Commission to the World Bank -- had disbursed substantial sums to achieve the same end, but to little avail.

"The fire cannot be extinguished," says D D Mishra categorically. He is the director of Central Mining Research Institute (cmri) and an expert on Jharia fires. "The stumbling block is not lack of technology, but incompetence of bccl," points out Mishra. He feels that the problem can be snuffed out by employing simple techniques which have been used effectively elsewhere (see box: Underlying threat). In his opinion it is the nexus between contractors and officials that has put the spanner in the works.

Joining issue

Down to Earth

‘Relocation is the only answer to save the residents of Jharia from disaster.’
Babulal Marandi, chief minister, Jharkhand

Down to Earth

‘The technology to douse the fires is available, but the political commitment is lacking.’
D D Mishra, director, Central Mining Research Institute, Dhanbad

Down to Earth

‘We will not shift out unless it is proved that the threat from the fires is real.’
K D Singh, leader, Jharia Coalfield Bachao Committee

Dousing: a damp squib
According to an assessment tabled by the Union ministry of coal and mines in parliament a couple of years ago, Rs 115 crore has been spent to put out the fires since 1976. bccl claims that 22 cases were taken up and 10 completely extinguished using all "possible" technologies. In addition to this, there are said to be ongoing projects worth Rs 100 crore. Ground realities, however, suggest that these are tall claims.

Mishra alleges that even elementary solutions such as pumping of sand and water into mines have become a lucrative business proposition for the concerned players. For instance, on paper bccl has filled the mines with some 50 million tonnes of sand . But insiders say that less than one-fourth of this amount may have actually reached the pits.

"There appears to be no permanent solution in sight. The only option seems to cut out trenches to disconnect fire seams (coal layers) which have been identified. But this would require a huge investment," avers Sharma. "If a blaze spreads across a small area, it can be extinguished through expeditious remedial action. But the extent to which it has flared up in Jharia makes dousing it an uphill task -- particularly when all the prevailing conditions further fan the fire," contends Nitish Priyadarshan, a Ranchi-based geologist who has conducted studies on Jharia mines. Priyadarshan is alluding to continuing mining activity despite the raging fire. Not only has there been no let-up in bccl's operations, even open cast mining has been taken up in the area. Incidentally, one such pit is the site of a major fire. The lack of authentic data has also impeded progress on this front.

the pitfalls: Immediately after nationalisation of mining activities in 1973-74, the government was left without even site maps as private operators simply vanished with their working plans. "At one point, engineers were told to physically verify each and every mine," reveals a top scientist of the Central Mine Planning and Designing Institute Limited, Ranchi. While the Coal Mines Regulation Act of 1957 requires that mine maps should be updated every third month, the delineation has remained unchanged over decades. This has led to haphazard mining.

Consequently though many mines in the Jharia coalfield are considered "accident-prone", neither the Union coal ministry nor Coal India Limited (cil) -- the nodal coal mining company -- possesses a comprehensive list of such collieries. According to a retired official of cil, the dgms had recommended the closure of 100 unsafe mines long ago. But even today, 20 per cent of the total coal extracted originates from such danger zones, he adds. The outcome: major accidents like the one that occurred on September 10, 1995, when the walls of a mine collapsed after being weakened by fires. Water from a nearby canal gushed in, flooding the pits and tunnels. More than 60 miners lost their lives in the mishap.

It was as late as 1995 that bccl obtained a map of the mines and fires using satellite imagery. It was discovered that rampant illegal mining had exposed the pits to oxygen, a catalyst for fire. "All this has happened as the officials are hand-in-glove with the coal mafia," says Mishra.

unknown origin: bccl is not very sure of the cause of the fire. According to it, 62 per cent of the fires are ignited by spontaneous combustion and 38 per cent due to accidental and other miscellaneous reasons. But a recent research by scientists of the Central Fuel Research Institute, Banaras Hindu University and bccl itself has disproved this theory. They have found that no single reason can be attributed to the fire. The team observes: "(The) Jharia coal is not very prone to auto-oxidation (which leads to spontaneous combustion)...."

With the fire-extinguishing alternative failing to take off -- albeit due to dubious factors -- and the blaze threatening to sear Jharia, resettling the town's residents emerged as an option.

Shift in strategy
Sources in bccl disclose that the relocation move was initiated way back in 1996 when a World Bank-funded expert group reported that Jharia had to be saved from the fire. Two us-based consultants (Gai-Metchem and Northwest Mine Services Limited) jointly executed the 'Jharia Mine Fire Control Technical Assistance Project' during 1994-1996. They recommended that "Jharia and Kirkend towns and other built-up areas ... require immediate isolation from fires".

bccl officials and coal ministry bureaucrats construed this as a green light to relocate local people. The Union government constituted a high-powered committee, led by the then coal secretary, in December 1996. The panel submitted its report a year later, but the government has not looked into it till now. This document also reportedly touches upon the subject of rehabilitation. The report was mentioned recently by Union minister for coal and mines Uma Bharti when she visited Jharia. The minister gave an assurance that a comprehensive resettlement plan would be announced within six months.

Sources in the Union coal ministry as well as in bccl have it that the relocation issue has been raked up to facilitate open cast mining in Jharia. The loss-making bccl has been propagating this method of extracting coal to cut costs and attempt a turnaround. But an essential prerequisite is evacuation of the town's residents since the best coal can be found under it. cmri, however, maintains that underground mining is a better alternative because it can prove profitable without jeopardising the safety of the people. "I have been told by several coal ministry officials that relocation is not viable and it can't justify the bccl's incompetence in curbing the fire," says Shibu Soren, the leader of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha. He has launched a major protest movement against the proposed evacuation.

Even if the bccl is given the benefit of doubt, it is inexplicable why the public sector undertaking has not readied a blueprint for shifting the residents of Jharia. No alternative land and rehabilitation package has been prepared yet. This has upset the local people who have formed the Jharia Coalfield Bachao Committee. Says K D Singh, a leader of the group: " bccl just wants to leave us in the lurch. But without concrete scientific evidence of the threat to Jharia, we are not moving."

Eyebrows are also being raised over the economics of the exercise. Mishra estimates that a minimum of Rs 18,000 crore will be needed to shift the entire population of Jharia. This excludes the hardship that the people will have to bear in terms of business and livelihood opportunities lost. Compared to this the cost of extinguishing the fire would be around Rs 8,000 crore, opines Mishra. Even the World Bank-funded project puts it at no more than Rs 10,000 crore. And the figure arrived at by the coal ministry, based on assessments made by different expert groups, is the lowest at Rs 4070 crore. The estimated net worth of coal that can be extracted from Jharia is a whopping Rs 30,000 crore. "The right doses of available technology and political commitment can help put out the fire at the best cost bargain," feels Mishra.

Given the massive cost of relocation and the precarious financial position of bccl, the only way out seems to be to douse the fire.

Feeling the heat
Today, the underground menace is more visible on the surface than ever before. In fact, the blaze engulfs Jharia from three sides. "Unlike a normal small town we are surrounded by fires, not green fields," says Jagdish Prasad Sharma, a resident. Every possible outlet spits fire. Nine-metre-high flames leap out of the passage from which coal was hauled out earlier. Besides, such pits spew deadly gases.

In a desperate move to extinguish the fire three years ago, bccl officials tried to pump water and sand into the mines. The hole they had drilled burst and now oozes black fumes. Not far from it, houses caught fire as the people used the abundantly available coal to erect the walls of the structures. In 2000, a major gas eruption forced bccl to abandon two of its staff colonies and evacuate people temporarily. Many residents had to be admitted to hospital. Though danger lurks at every step and fear stalks Jharia, some of the local people have devised their own early warning devices. Like Jagdish Prasad Sharma's monkey. "It will die first in case of a gas eruption and alert us," he explains on the basis of past experience. Birds, too, have fallen prey in such cases, signalling trouble. Jharia falls back on these improvised survival techniques in the hope that the authorities will finally begin employing scientific fire-fighting methods effectively. From all indications, the residents of the town have a long wait ahead.

Until hell freezes over?

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