By Jatin Bavishi
On 24th May 2017, a portion of land caved-in at Indira Chowk on Jharia-Sindri road. A shopkeeper Babloo Ansari and his son Rahim, whose shop was adjacent to the site were engulfed under the land. The incident was obviously tragic but what exacerbates it is that this was neither the first such occurrence nor is it independent of the ‘processes’ of development. The Indian Railways ended its operation on a 35-km line between Chandrapura and Dhanbad from 15th June 2017 over looming danger of land subsidence, as the line passed through the Jharia coalfield area.
Jharia is burning
Coal mining in Jharia started in 1894 and has continued incessantly since then. In fact, it is home to two large underground and nine large open cast mines. The area has large deposits of coking coal, which is highly inflammable in nature. Scientific drilling would call for backfilling mines after digging to prevent exposure to open air. Engineers try to ensure the necessary precautions are taken, but the private drillers simply blast the earth’s surface by gunpowder or dynamite without covering it. The result — spontaneous combustion leading to fires. Bootlegging, mafia and the political nexus have created a division between those to whom the mineral rents accrue and those who pay its price. The 2012 Bollywood movie Gangs of Wasseypur portrays a stunning insight into this aspect.
The saga of fires in itself is not new. The first subterranean blaze was noticed in 1916 and since then it has been a recurring theme in the newspapers of undivided Bihar and Jharkhand. According to Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL) estimates, the fires have already devoured about 37 million tonnes of coal. Another two billion tonnes of coal has become inaccessible, resulting in losses worth $220 billion. Prior to the nationalisation of coal mines in late 1960’s, most of the mining was for profit maximisation with little regards to safety. The government has taken steps to extinguish fires but despite them, only around 10 fires out of 80 have been extinguished since the takeover.
Uneven and combined development
Coal has been an important component of the Indian growth story. Even today, after years of negotiations on reducing coal-fuelled economic accumulation, it fills more than half of our energy requirements. Coal from Jharia is extracted by the iron and steel industries of West Bengal. This coal has brought light to many homes by virtue of being an input in the numerous thermal power plants. Yet, the destruction has been huge.
Toxic fumes — which include poisons such as sulphur, carbon monoxide, carbon and nitrogen oxides — are a part of everyday life where coal emissions are causing devastatingly high rates of breathing disorders and skin diseases among locals. The underground fire has contaminated the soil, water, and air, with trees and vegetation dying in most of the places. Residents spend their days clamouring over the hot ground to eke out a living by chiselling out pieces of coal to sell at local markets, reports Daily Mail (UK). Authorities have been chalking out rehabilitation plans for almost half a century but little has been achieved. The city is already very densely populated and economic opportunities in the mines (or its complementary industries like railways) still crowd in labourers from nearby areas. Willingness to work at these earthly infernos with poor remuneration and working conditions is a display of horror.
The question of rehabilitation
The principal secretary to the Prime Minister held a meeting of the stakeholders on May 22 and sought time-bound action on shifting out arterial railway lines through Jharia, and rehabilitation of its population, as reported by The Indian Express. Three years ago, the Jharia Rehabilitation and Development Authority (JRDA) identified about 50,000 people who should be moved but is yet to provide a home to most. The number of people looking for a house has doubled since. The residents are used to such election time promises and have become highly suspicious of any official help — which reduces the efficacy of even genuine measures.
Environmental justice for all?
The problem is not with the essence of development, but with the nature of development. Almost all countries which embarked on the path of development in the 21st century chose the western world as its role model. The smoke guzzling factories have been taken to be the ‘elixir’ and the shortest route to break from the shambles of poverty. Our very own strategy of ‘heavy industrialisation’ (adopted in 1956), which undeniably build the foundations of modern India, put only secondary attention to environmental justice (no group gets an unfair treatment with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws).
The West was able to uplift itself because it could use the global commons, such as the sea and the atmosphere, as trash. Most of our development projects have failed to adequately consider this point and hence, we cannot replicate their experience. India has reiterated its commitment to environment protection but it is important we calibrate our idea of development which sees people as means — for higher growth — to ends.
Featured Image Credits: Mirror
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