The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The sun had just set behind a mass of black dust. The rickety old trekker packed with sundry goods — from men, hanging out of doors or perched atop the hood, to cattle, an odd bicycle and milkman’s pots — limped towards Jharia from Dhanbad station.

For the first five minutes, the ride was smooth. The only discomfort was the lack of breathing space. But once the vehicle cruised out of the urban maze, the nightmare unfolded. The soot-smeared road dipped into hollow cavities and reared up again in knobs of earth. It was an apology of a road with the asphalt long gone.

As the Jharkhand chief minister, Babulal Marandi, gives final touches to the star-studded guestlist for the state’s second birthday on November 15, residents of Jharia — the state’s coal bowl — face a pressing problem. The raging underground mine fire has triggered fears of mass displacement in the Bharat Coking Coal Limited’s mining townships. Early this month, Marandi announced that the mine fire zones would have to be evacuated.

The directive has sent Jharia into a tizzy with politicians rushing in to ride the crest of volatile public emotions. Two local heavyweights — science and technology minister, Samresh Singh (of Bokaro), and urban development minister, Bachcha Singh — have revived their old war of one-upmanship — who should emerge the hero in the save-Jharia campaign' There is a catch though. Though the duo is busy slinging charges, they are humming the same tune. Both are averse to the idea of displacing people affected by the mine fire. They are railing at the government, accusing one another of misleading the chief minister and of promoting the interests of the coal mafia-politician nexus.

The rival crusaders have vowed that the residents of the fire-zones would be evacuated “over their dead bodies”. Marandi’s flippant attitude to the problem has resulted in this comedy of errors. At a recent cabinet meeting, the chief minister unveiled a revival package for the ailing Fertiliser Corporation of India township in Sindri, but he dismissed Jharia, saying the crisis could be controlled by “relocating” the victims. Though his solution appeared theoretically sane, it spelt doom for the region. An abandoned Jharia could put a big question mark on the future of Dhanbad as the country’s coal capital. The ministers claimed that none of them were consulted “in individual capacity” by Marandi before deciding Jharia’s fate.

The chief minister’s bailout blueprint would not only jeopardize the BJP’s Dhanbad-Jharia votebase, but could also have a ripple effect in neighbouring Sindri, the gasping Food Corporation of India township, which is on the chief minister’s economic turnaround map.

In a meeting between the BCCL management and the state government, represented by industry minister, P.N. Singh, on Saturday, it was decided that people from 10 sensitive areas would be evacuated. Experts felt that though “there was no immediate threat”, Jharia could fall off the coal map in 10 years’ time and become a “subterranean entity.” The BCCL has been asked to prepare a list of unauthorized buildings and residents in the affected area.

Though Marandi has pitched in P.N. Singh to contend the warring forces, the relocation remedy has not gone down well with the masses. Despite announcing an array of sops to offset the gravity of the loss, public resentment is already brewing.

The BJP apart, the move also portends ill for the Samata Party, represented by Bachcha Singh. The minister is an ally of the state party unit chief, Ramesh Singh Munda, who has recently been targetted for ouster by a strong dissident group within the state Samata Party. As a result, Bachcha Singh has also been sidelined and threatened. The Samata rebels have been sharpening their knives for Singh while raising the pitch for Munda’s removal in Delhi.

Consequently, Bachcha Singh has hit out in self-defence. “No one can order Jharia’s evacuation without my consent. I have spent a huge amount for the development of Jharia’s infrastructure. No one (read Samresh Singh) can charge me with colluding with the coal mafia,” he roared.

Not to be outdone, techno-savvy Samresh Singh roped in his long-time friend, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, to announce an 11-member rescue team for Jharia victims. The Union minister for coal and mines, Uma Bharti, has been asked to constitute the committee on a war-footing. It will comprise members from the Central Fuel Research Institute and Indian School of Mines and Indian Institute of Coal Management. The science and technology minister has also planned a one-crore signature campaign for his save-Jharia mission.

A smug Samresh Singh said: “Jharia’s misfortune lies in a politician (read Bachcha Singh)-mafia nexus that is conspiring to swell its kitty by removing lakhs of people so that fresh areas can be mined. The chief minister has been misled. Mines do not figure on the state list, it is up to the Centre to decide.” Samresh Singh has a lot at stake in Jharia. An independent legislator, who later joined the Marandi government, Samresh Singh relies heavily on the industrial vote bank. Any attempt to dislodge the people of Jharia’s town could prove to be his political undoing.

As the politicians pack in more gunpowder, residents of Jharia are, ironically, relieved. Says Sanjeev Tiwary, a trader at Katras: “For once, both of them are talking about saving us even though they are squabbling.” The ground in front of Tiwary’s automobile shop has caved in and the heat is stifling even in an early autumn evening. He and several others at Katras intersection on the Dhanbad-Jharia road, sit on a tinderbox.

According to a study by V.K. Srivastava of the Indian School of Mines, there are 20 big fire zones covering an area of 17.35 square kilometres in Jharia. Most of the burning coal seams are located at a shallow depth of less than 40 km underground. However, GAI Consultants, an American firm which conducted a World Bank-aided technical investigation into the Jharia mine fire, puts the number of fire zones at 65 (both big and small). The mine fires have caused extensive damage to the eco-system, waterways, roads and railways because of extensive land subsidence. Last month, two important passenger trains on the Dhanbad-Sindri-Pathardih section had to be withdrawn because the tracks caved in.

The Jharia coalfields, one of Asia’s biggest coal reserves, has 25 large underground mines and 10 open cast mines. The British pioneers first started mining locally in 1894 but extraction picked up in 1925 with the advent of first-generation technology. The earliest mine fire in Jharia can be traced back to 1916, when the first blaze was detected.

Geological records cite that the region has 28 major coal seams — 19 in the Barakar formation (in the older stratigraphic horizon) and 9 in the Raniganj formation (the younger stratigraphic horizon). The fire is located along the outcrops in the Barakar formation, which has large surface cracks along the rocky flanks.

Coal tends to ignite “naturally” when exposed to certain temperature variations, moisture and oxygen. It simmers at low temperature. In most cases, the combustion is usually spontaneous. But if initial efforts to douse a burning coal seam fails, the fire may rage for more than a century, destroying the reserve and the life overground. Though massive fires have been reported from the United States of America, Australia, Indonesia, South Africa, China and Germany, in India, it’s nature differs. In Jharia, the fires have resulted from unscientific mining and reckless extraction in the pre-nationalization era. From the mid-Seventies, poor land filling — covering up abandoned mines with sand and soil to prevent entry of oxygen — has aggravated the fires instead of containing them. So fire-fighting operations now involve relocation of a large population, which poses a bigger hazard than the actual operation itself.

The GAI Consultants, which submitted its first report in 1996, this year placed a joint proposal with the Nor’West Mine Services, US for an extension of the feasibility probe. “The situation is very grave in Jharia. The GAI plans to assist officials of the Union coal ministry and the BCCL to develop a plan of action for mine fire control, abatement, resettlement and economic and ecological damage repairs caused by the fire,’’ said a GAI spokesman. Till such time, Jharia will continue to burn, both from within and outside, as politicians exchange fire.

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