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Breathing fire | On hot coals at Jharia coal fields

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Jharia simmers from a century of unscientific coal mining, and the incessant smoke is forcing tens of thousands of families out of their homes.

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Mohmmed Usman Ansari, 55, is a worried man. The smoke that billows from fissures on the ground, 10 metres from his house near Lodna village in Jharkhand’s Jharia coalfields, is a warning sign: that he must move home. The century-old underground coal burning could reduce his home to rubble.

“My forefathers worked here as contractors. Four generations have lived on this land beneath which coal has burned constantly,” says Ansari. Homes are frequently lost, and the real health hazard that these coalfields pose has left his family concerned.

The first coal fire, a result of unscientific mining carried out by erstwhile mine owners in Jharia, was reported in 1916 from the XIV seam of the Bhowrah colliery. Since then, fires have broken out in underground workings and opencast pits and debris. Traffic on National Highway 32 was once affected by fire in the Kenduadih colliery in Jharia. Trains were diverted when tracks were impacted by underground coal burning.

Ansari says 70,011 households have to be resettled along the fringes of Jharia.

According to a 2008 master plan of Bharat Coking Coal Ltd., a state-run coal company, all the affected people should have been resettled, and coal-burning contained at a cost of ₹7,112.11 crore by 2020. However, this remains a mirage. Only 13,991 resettlement quarters have been completed, and according to the Comptroller and Auditor General, just 5,488 have been occupied.

The National Remote Sensing Centre, Hyderabad, said that surface fire had expanded from 2.018 sq. km in 2014 to 3.28 sq. km in 2018.

Company sources say that after nationalisation, 70 fires were reported over an area of 17.32 sq. km. An estimated 37 million tonnes of prime coking coal have been destroyed and about 1,864 tonnes of coal remain inaccessible behind the fires.

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