Dhanbad: Thousands of inhabitants in the rural areas near the Jharia coalfields continue to lead a perilous life atop a tinderbox with the 2009 master plan of Jharia Rehabilitation and Development Authority (JRDA) to relocate them to a township in Belgharia moving at snail’s pace.
Staying on land prone to subsidence with a century-old inferno beneath, the living conditions have further deteriorated due to largescale environmental pollution, caused by opencast mining projects and ancillary industrial activities.
Underground mining before the coal sector was nationalised in 1971 and subterranean fires in the unfilled pits have made several areas vulnerable to cave-ins, according to locals. However, public sector major Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL), which operates the opencast mines, denies the allegation and blames the pre-1971 leaseholders for abandoning their mines without backfilling or closure.
On the other hand, the Jharkhand government claims that “encroachers” are the biggest hurdle in the resettlement plan. But inhabitants in many fire-affected areas allege that even the resettlement of families with legal land deeds has been tardy.
More than 100 families inhabit Rajput Basti, under the Kenduadih Police Station of Dhanbad, despite the BCCL declaring the area “unsafe for habitation” following 45 incidents of subsidence. Rajput Basti falls in Pootkee Balihari Area (as designated by BCCL) in Dhanbad’s Sadar subdivision, where a number of opencast mining projects are operational. According to locals, a private firm East India Coal Company was mining coal in the region from late 19th century onwards.
Earth subsidence in Rajput Basti in Kenduadih, Dhanbad, in September 2021 damaged a poultry farm and portions of the adjoinijng residential unit.
“At least, 50 families in our colony have legal land ownership records. Though the government has offered us land to resettle, they are much smaller than the ones we legally own. Besides, the government has neither promised compensation against our houses nor new sources of livelihood after we resettle. Currently, we somehow manage to eke a living,” Sagar Singh (50), a resident of Rajput Basti, tells Newsclick.
Starting way back in 1983, subsidence has been a recurring phenomenon in Rajput Basti with two major incidents occurring during the monsoons in the past two years. In September 2021, a woman had a close shave when a poultry farm collapsed during a cave-in. The farm’s owner Anand Singh, who also lost a portion of his house, shifted to rented accommodation. Singh’s bother Rajesh, who still lives in the colony, claimed that the family incurred a loss of more than Rs 1 lakh.
In September 2020, another subsidence reported hours after BCCL issued a warning notice opened up a crater almost 5 feet deep in the courtyard of Lal Bahadur Singh, another resident of the locality. “The walls and the floor crack when explosives are used in the nearby collieries without warning. Gradually, verandas and floors of houses are sinking, and doors and windows cannot be shut due to misshapen walls. We cannot breathe properly due to the smoke and dust caused by the blasts,” says Singh (56).
Despite the BCCL denying any role in causing the underground fires or subsidence, its largescale opencast mining has caused environmental degradation. Dhanbad was placed at the 13th spot by the Central Pollution Control Board in its list of 88 “critically polluted industrial clusters” identified across the country.
Even urban townships like Dhanbad and Jharia report high cases of tuberculosis and respiratory diseases traced by health professionals to air pollution caused by mining and other industrial activities.
In Jairamdih village of Baghmara administrative block, Dhanbad, all the 30-odd families of Roy Tola are locked in a land title suit with the BCCL, which operates an opencast mine right next to their locality.
Houses of Jairamdih village in Dhanbad dilapited from tremors caused by blasting of dynamite in nearby colliery.
A 2006 writ petition demanding compensation and employment for Roy Tola families—all of whom trace their ancestry to three persons whose names appear in the Khatiyan records—is pending in Jharkhand High Court. The company argues that these families are not entitled to compensation because their ownership of the land has yet to be proved.
“Our entire locality will cave in any moment. Why is coal mining more important than the people?” asks Sahdeo Prasad Singh (52) of Roy Tola.
The mud-and-brick dwellings have been damaged by tremors caused by the blasts and the dumping of the overburden, or waste, generated from mining on the disputed land. The backyards of these dwellings are dotted with craters of various sizes emitting fire and smoke.
Several dwelling units have been abandoned. “We rush out every afternoon when explosives are used in the colliery. The toilets constructed here under a Jharkhand government scheme are unusable without running water. On the other hand, toxic underground smoke finds its way out through septic tanks. A tube well which was our only source of drinking water became useless due to mining,” Singh adds.
Hundreds of vehicles daily transport coal on an unmetalled road meandering through overburden dumps near the tiny village. “This causes air pollution. Inhalation of toxic smoke has caused tuberculosis and asthma. Kids are most vulnerable because they play in open areas,” says Jeera Devi, an elderly woman of Roy Tola.
Residents of Roy Tola in Jairamdih in Dhanbad showing disputed land over which overburden is being dumped by the mines operator.
In Phulari Bagh Basti, located next to Indra Chowk, in Jharia, scores of families with no legal ownership of land are also awaiting resettlement. In May 2017, a 40-year-old mechanic Bablu and his teenage son died after falling into a burning crater that suddenly opened up in their garage.
“Bablu’s survivors were given a compensation of Rs 1 lakh and accommodation in Belgharia. Nearly, 150 other families have been living here for generations but resettlement has become an issue due to the lack of land ownership records. But isn’t it the same government that has issues us Aadhaar, voter identity and ration cards on the same address?” asks Bablu’s sister-in-law Suhana Khatun.
Similarly, scores of families continue to live on the edge under the Rajapur Open Cast Mining Project, in an area abutting a temple behind New Colony Barafkal. These families make a living by scraping coal from the surface of the mineral-rich earth to sell it in the open market. Though the project has been temporarily suspended, the inhabitants claim that fires have been continuously expanding while the size of the mining pit has increased due to subsidence.
Locals scraping loose coal from the non-operational Rajapur Open Cast Mine to sell in the open market.
The master plan, as per the state government, ended in August 2021 with only a fraction of the affected families resettled in 12 years. Now, a new master plan is in the works. A senior JRDA official says the draft, being reviewed by the Jharkhand government, will be sent to the Centre for approval.
However, the “challenge to resettle encroachers will continue”, JRDA’s officer-in-charge of relief and rehabilitation Amar Prasad tells Newsclick. “Compared to 2004, the number of encroachers has increased considerably as per a new survey conducted in 2019. But the draft master plan has provisions to enable them to resettle on their own after accepting a one-time compensation package. Resettlement is not only a socioeconomic process; it also involves multiple factors, including unwillingness of the families to relocate.”
The number of houses constructed under the 2009 master plan are far less compared to the increasing population of the affected areas. The BCCL has identified, at least, 595 sites and constructed 15,852 to relocate the families of people working in its projects. Around 3,852 families are set to be shifted to the new houses. The BCCL has also proposed to JRDA to utilise 8,000 of these houses to resettle families belonging to outsiders.
The state government has undertaken a project to construct 18,352 residential units out of which 6,352 are completed while the remaining units are targeted for completion in August 2022.
A senior BCCL official claims that the public sector major has so far managed to contain the spread of underground fires through several measures. As per a study conducted by the ISRO’s National Remote Sensing Centre, the cumulative area of fire-affected sites has reduced from 70 covering an area of 17.32 sq km to 18 covering 1.8 sq km.
“A common process to contain fires and subsidence is to open up the affected sites. But this can only be done in sites which have any mineable coal reserves. Under the Jharia master plan, we decided to open up 17 fire-affected sites. Digging is under way at 15 sites which are economically viable. For the remaining two sites, we have asked for a viability gap funding of Rs 763 crore,” Chanchal Goswami, director (technical), BCCL, tells Newsclick.
Smoke billowing from underground fires right behind settlements in Jairamdih village of Dhanbad district
Goswami also said the number of vulnerable areas in Jharia could be substantially higher because the ISRO study detected only those fires that are visible. Despite repeated calls, the officials in charge of mines safety in Jharia were unavailable for comments.
“There is no other option but to find alternate land to resettle the affected population. Clear guidelines should be followed by officials to resettle the population in a time-bound manner,” says R Ravi of mines, minerals & PEOPLE, an alliance of communities and individuals affected by mining.