On shaky ground

450,000 people in and around Jharia town of Jharkhand are threatened by the fire raging underground, but there is no political will to implement the master plan for their rehabilitation and fire control

 
Last Updated: Wednesday 08 July 2015 | 16:46:16 PM

On shaky ground

Alok Kumar Gupta

Nearly half a million people living in and around the Jharia coalfield in Jharkhand have to be shifted to control underground fires. But the government has no sound strategy for their rehabilitation and the people have no trust in the government

Kujama village in Jharkhand's Jharia coalfield appears like a war zone that has been bombed repeatedly. Several houses and a temple are now debris; only their skeletons remain. Cracks in walls and the floor spew noxious smoke. Barely a few metres from the village flames leap out of pits and cracks in the earth every few seconds. Underneath, fire is raging, turning high quality coal into ash and creating voids. "We know our house can subside anytime," said Kishori Lal, a 66-year-old who has seen the fire progress towards the village for 20 years. The fire has now spread under Kujama but Kishori Lal refuses to leave the village. "Our livelihood is stealing coal. My father was also a coal thief.I am not literate and have no job. Dying in this fire is better than dying of hunger," he said.

On fire 67 spots in 41 collieries of the Jharia coalfield  
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Using remote sensing and other techniques, a study by consultants Gai-Metchem and Northwest Mine Services Limited, a joint-venture of the US and Canada, in 1996 noted the total fire area in Jharia had reduced to nearly half and occupied 890 ha. This means the burning coal was finished in the rest of the area. "Fire has definitely reduced but it does not mean that slowly it will extinguish on its own. It is moving to new areas after turning coal into ash," said Lahiry. "All our plans (for fighting fire and relocating people) are based on old data. It's nearly impossible to assess the present status of the fire. For ascertaining the magnitude and the spread of fire we have to dig boreholes. This can be possible only when people are removed. We cannot dig boreholes in somebody's house."

Jharia is a unique coal belt. Unlike mines across the world where the best quality coal is about 300 metres below, in Jharia it is close to the surface. This increases the chances of subsidence in case of underground fire or unscientific mining. There have been several cases of subsidence and casualty in Jharia. Last year two people were killed in subsidence in Dharamnagar and Kujama. In 2006, 10 died in Kusunda village. "The 0.45 million population is living dangerously. The earth can subside anytime; houses can cave in. A catastrophe can happen and in one go hundreds of people can die," said Lahiry.

After decades of half-hearted attempts to douse the fire, a master plan was prepared in 1999. But it was not before 2003 that a comprehensive rehabilitation plan for those living in unstable areas was included in it after a public-interest petition brought the issue to the Supreme Court's notice. Prepared by the Ranchi-based Central Mine Planning and Design Institute (cmpdi) for the Centre, state government and bccl, the master plan was revised in 2006 to update the cost and the number of people to be relocated.

It is the largest fire-fighting operation in the world and one of the largest relocation projects. It aims at shifting people from 98,314 houses in 12 years from the time the Centre approves the master plan. These include 44,155 bccl houses, 29,444 private houses and 23,847 unauthorized houses and 868 other structures like schools and temples. Land has been earmarked for new townships north of Jharia and bccl says it has no dearth of funds. Over Rs 2,000 crore has accrued in the past six-seven years--more is accruing--through cess collected on coal for dousing fire and rehabilitation, said Lahiry (see Financing relocation). Any deficit will be taken care of by the state-run Coal India Limited, of which bccl is a subsidiary, he added.

Relocation begins

Six years on, the only sign of rehabilitation is a pilot project that began in 2003 to relocate 33,000 families from the most unstable areas--Bokapahari, Lodna, Bastacola, Kustore, and East Jharia--to Belgaria, 30 km away. The township, with plots and apartments, will be ready by the end of this year and efforts to relocate people have begun. The pilot is a litmus test for bccl and the Jharia Rehabilitation Development Authority (jrda) constituted by the state government. It will pave the way for the implementation of the master plan that boasts relocation at a cost of Rs 7,112 crore. bccl estimates the cost may soar to Rs 10,000 crore after the inclusion of livelihood plans.

The township at Belgaria looks impressive from a distance. Its apartments are nearly ready. Water towers, sewerage and power lines have been connected to the township.

Down to Earth  
Though the earth is baking hot even in February, people do not want to leave. Most depend on the mines for income
 

But when compared with the modest dwellings of families in Bokapahari and Kujama, these apartments with two rooms, a kitchen and a toilet appear very small. One of the biggest drawbacks of the three-storey buildings is that there is no space for cattle. The only advantage is electricity and water connection.

As per the master plan a plot of 100 sq m is being allotted to house owners at Belgaria. Encroachers will be allotted a house built on an area of 27 sq m, which is slightly bigger than a garage.

Gunika Prasad of Bokapahari is the head of a family of six and his temper frays at the mention of relocating to Belgaria. "How will we adjust in that small apartment? My two cows and a calf also need space. I own three katha (one katha is 130 sq m) of land and I have ownership papers. Do you think I will leave this land for that tiny flat enough for barely two persons? Where will my son and daughter-in-law live? They are cheating us," said Prasad. He is unaware of 500 days of daily wage of Rs 90 and compensation he is entitled to for his land after relocation (see Rehabilitation package).

Suresh Paswan of Kujama recalled, "bccl officers came here a few months ago and told us to shift to a safer place. But we have decided to live here. Relocation is lip service by the mining giant." Paswan and his family of six gather coal from the mining area.

Down to Earth  
Houses are nearly ready at Belgaria to relocate 33,000 families living in fire-affected areas of Jharia, but people complain the flats are too small
 

Asked why he did not want to shift to the relocation site, 42-year-old Nihan Paswan of Jalgora village in Lodna block mockingly said he and other villagers were absolutely comfortable living close to the billowing smoke. Then he turned sombre and added, "I have seen this earth giving death to our people but we do not want to shift. We know pucca houses are being constructed for us for years. They are promising the moon but we don't trust them. What if we shift and do not get compensation for 20 years?"

Suspicion runs deep among people across Jharia. "It's difficult to part with ancestral land. We can think of relocation only if the company provides us land equivalent to ours. But they never fulfil their promises," said Diwakar Prasad of Bokapahari that has been declared the most dangerous by bccl.

People of Kujama accuse bccl and cmpdi of not understanding their needs and feelings. They fear the mining major will take away their land on the pretext of rehabilitation and return wasteland after mining. Just behind Kishori Lal's hut a pucca house has come up. Its residents refuse to give their names or explain why they have invested in building a house in highly subsidence-prone zone. "It's our village and my six sons carry coal from the waste dump to sell it. Why should not we construct our home? No one has put a ban on construction here," retorted an elderly woman.

Down to Earth Stumbling blocks
Thousands of families in Jharia survive on coal stolen from bccl's mining waste. Several others are miners or run small businesses. Relocating will mean loss of job for them. They are not ready to shift even though gases emanating from burning coal make them sick. Asthama and tuberculosis are common. A senior officer in jrda admitted, "Construction of apartments is a grave error. We are not dealing with urban slums; it's a village that needs to be located. Villagers have cattle and their livelihood ranges from rag-picking to coal gathering, for which they need open space." The district administration tried to shift small families to Belgaria but even they refused to relocate.

Down to Earth  
Suresh Paswan and his mother pack coal in sacks at the end of the day. They make Rs 40-90 a day by selling coal
 

Both the implementing agencies, bccl and jrda, are shaky about the success of the relocation project. "It's unarguably the world's most challenging relocation and rehabilitation plan. It's not easy to convince the villagers and encroachers who depend on collieries to shift to a new location. Also, construction of schools, hospitals and approach road at the new site is pending," said Narendra Kumar, the superintendent engineer of jrda.

Lahiry admits bccl's failure in persuading people. "We have repeatedly pleaded with house owners and enchroachers to shift to our quarters. This will save lives and also help us in controlling the fire. Our efforts to shift them have failed. It's because we never chalked out livelihood plans. We have now upgraded the master plan accordingly," he said.

Livelihood plans being drawn up by bccl and the district administration include mushroom cultivation, nursing and tailoring courses for women, and motor driving courses and training as electrician and plumber for men. To generate employment bccl is also ready to provide seed money to cooperatives formed by the relocated residents and to reopen coke oven plants for making coke from coal. These plans are yet to be started. The company has also agreed to pay people living on fire a shifting allowance of up to Rs 10,000.

But the incentives in the master plan cannot be communicated to the people because the plan is yet to be cleared by the Cabinet at the Centre. "It is true that families do not know about the resettlement and rehabilitation package prepared under the master plan, but the administration is helpless," said Ajay Kumar Singh, deputy commissioner of Dhanbad. "Villagers want land and also compensation of Rs 3-4 lakh. Compen- sation needs to be reconsidered."

Apart from restrictions on explaining the rehabilitation package to the people, jrda and the district administration severely lack resources to carry out a large-scale awareness or administrative exercise for relocation. jrda has only one vehicle to reach 67 fire zones. It has no communication tool or trained staff to convince the villagers.

  Down to Earth
Gathering and selling coal in searing heat is a way of life for thousands
 

About two years ago the district administration planned to distribute identity cards to the families that will be rehabilitated in Belgaria. The list of families has not been finalized yet because officials faced stiff opposition from the residents of Bokapahari and Lodna refusing to shift. "We might have succeeded if we had a presentation that could have been displayed on a large screen," complained an official.

Neither jrda nor the administration has any specific strategy for relocation. They are banking on the provisions of the compensation package mentioned in the master plan. Until the Central government approves it, the package will only provide cold comfort to the people risking their lives for livelihood.

Slow and unsteady

It is doubtful the master plan will see the light of the day

The relocation plan would have made more sense if it was done soon after a committee set up by the energy ministry in 1976 found underground fire active in the Jharia coalfield. Then, bccl did not even consider relocation. The Jharia Rehabilitation and Development Authority (jrda), responsible for shifting non- bccl employees, estimates that in seven years since the first master plan came up in 1999 the population of the Jharia coalfield risen by over 40 per cent.

The first committee to control fire and prevent subsidence was set up in 1922 under the Union coal ministry. Since then there have been several committees on fighting fire, but little action (see Action not taken).It was in 1997 that a committee set by the Directorate General of Mines Safety (dgms) on the Supreme Court's direction noted there was no scientific method to ensure the long-term stability of fire sites and the permanent solution was evacuation of the affected areas. Till then fire-fighting efforts did not include relocation.

"It's true rehabilitation would have been easier a few decades ago. The state took three years to approve the master plan and we are yet to get clearance from the Centre. Dousing fire needs a national commitment," said Lahiry of bccl.

However, bccl's commitment to douse fire itself is suspicious. Since the plan was conceived in the 1980s to douse 70 fires, it has extinguished only 10. Activists of the Jharia Coalfield Bachao Samiti allege the mining major extinguished fire at 10 places because it wanted to start mining there. " bccl keeps the fire alive to keep the people away. When they plan to mine they extinguish the fire," alleged Ashok Agrawal, president of the group.

bccl denied the charges. "We do not nurture fire for personal gains. Fire is destroying coals worth millions of rupees. It's a loss to the company and to the nation," said Lahiry.

Former scientists, who risked their lives to prepare technical strategies to douse fire or to mine burning coal, also accuse bccl of taking up dousing only till it achieves its mining targets. T K Singh, a retired scientist of the Central Mine Planning and Design Institute, recalled a project funded by dgms for building a barrier between a mine on fire and a village and then mine burning coal. "It was a risky project. The plan was conceived by me. We were implementing the project that would have stopped the fire from spreading and saved coal," Singh said. "But my project was stopped midway because bccl achieved its fiscal target of mining 0.3 million tonnes of coal from the area. It was a disgusting experience." bccl dismissed the allegation as wild.

Activists also accuse bccl and the government of misleading the people. Raja Shiv Prasad college, a few kilometres from Dhanbad town, is likely to be shifted since the fire is nearing its campus. "Till last year the company was claiming the college was safe. They have given it in writing under rti that there is no threat to the college. Their stand keeps changing. Their facts and figures are old," said Agrawal.

Making losses According to the 21st report of the business advisory committee to Parliament presented in 1992, fire has destroyed about 37 million tonnes of quality coking coal that's used in the steel industry. Recently, a mining lease given to a private company backfired because while digging it found more than half of the lease area engulfed in fire. To control the loss, the Coal India Ltd and its subsidiary bccl in 2004 decided to focus on areas where fire can be handled by removing coal. The aim was to dig out half the coal before it is burnt. bccl estimates 1,453 million tonnes are trapped in fire.

Down to EarthIn February this year, Coal India said it planned to revive coal mines at Jharia. "If the mine fire is controlled and this facility (coalfield) is properly utilized, it alone can cater to the coking coal need of the steel industry," said the company's chairman P S Bhattacharyya. Some officials suspect bccl is insisting on relocation because it wants to take up opencast mining there to save costs. The coal ministry estimates dousing the fire will require Rs 4,070 crore, less than relocation. But bcci says even to assess the spread of fire, it needs to shift people. Its pace of efforts, however, do not match the magnitude of the problem.

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