Jharia Burning

Joyce-01-thumbnail Allison Joyce in The Virginia Quarterly Review:

At the center of Dhanbad City, in the Jharia region of northeastern India, amid a handful of concrete buildings, stands the enormous bronze statue of a coal miner. He is shirtless, muscular, and handsome. He strides doggedly forward, a mining helmet on his head, a pickax slung over his shoulder. The message is clear: Coal is my life. The area around Dhanbad produces India’s highest grade of coking coal, which in turn fuels the blast furnaces used for smelting steel. Contained in twenty-three large underground mines and nine open cast mines across an expanse of 450 square kilometers, Jharia’s heart of coal also produces power: two thirds of all electricity in India is generated in coal-fired plants. The earth beneath Jharia contains one of the largest coal reserves in the world.

But the coal is also on fire.

Mining started in Jharia in the 1890s, and by 1916 newspapers were reporting underground coal fires. According to these accounts, most fires started by spontaneous combustion; the deep mine tunnels had been improperly vented, leading to a buildup of volatile gases. Those fires have now burned for nearly a century, smoldering and spreading over 60 square kilometers, both at the surface and underground, with some fires reaching depths of 140 meters. More than 12 percent of the total deposits in the Jharia coalfields, or about 1.45 billion tonnes of coal, are now blocked from further development by these fires.

The land around Jharia is dominated by open mines laced with fissures and shafts, which act as bellows and chimneys, feeding and venting the subterranean fires. In some places, smoke, gases, and flames shoot up from the earth, and the ground has been known to collapse—sometimes with fatal consequences. Waterways are endangered, infrastructure has been destroyed, and even for those who step carefully, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and methane permeate the air, and many of the eighty thousand people who live in the region suffer from respiratory and skin problems.

Bokahapadi Village is the deadliest part of this deadly region, so when I arrived in Jharia, I wanted to see it.