The Jharia coalfields in Jharkhand constitute the richest coal-bearing area in the country: they contain large quantities of high-grade coking coal. But the presence of this natural resource has been a curse for the local tribal villagers. The Jharia area also has a large number of ongoing mine fires, which have a history of more than a century and have been causing great loss to life and property.

I am reminded of an incident that happened when I was President of India. I was travelling from Sindri to Dhanbad. Hundreds of villagers rushed to my car. We immediately stopped and listened to them. They narrated the heating and spot-fire which regularly take place near their houses. A major challenge to the mining community is that of tackling fires, which have engulfed large and densely populated coal-bearing areas. I and my team visited their houses, where we discovered intense, unbearable heat, emanating not from the skies but the ground below. Occasionally, jets of flames would spurt out from the ground, scorching the earth.

The entire area has been destroyed by the mining activity and rendered uninhabitable for humans or any other life form. Sadly, it can never be restored, at least not for the next million years. Much of the coal mined today is used for electricity generation across the world, and there are many more Jharias being created across the rural and forest lands of earth. These will continue to swell in numbers and size — unless we find sustainable alternative fuel sources to replace fossil fuels.