Book Extract

The curse of coal in Jharia

Life in Jharia is a version of Dante’s inferno – 7,00,000 people live in the most unimaginable conditions. Though Jharia’s residents say they are dying slowly, they also say they’ll never leave

Sandeep Pai

Srikumari looked frail and tired, older than her 51 years. She was hesitant to speak with us. When she spoke, she whispered, “We are in a lot of pain. We have nothing, and our house has been flooded with water.” After marriage, Srikumari had lived her whole life in Golakd basti, one of the settlements in Jharia badly affected by coal fires.

As we drove to Golakd earlier that morning, the air was smoky. En route, we passed small houses with low stone walls around them. The walls were made of a mixture of stone and coal – coal was so plentiful here that people were using it as a building material. When the road turned into a muddy track and then ended at a large pond ringed by houses, we knew we had arrived in Golakd. The first thing that hit us was the smell. The air was hot, smoky, dusty and sharp, although not as choked as in Kumhar basti.

Savannah leaned down and touched the ground with her palms. “It’s hot,” she said as Sandeep and Parwaz wiped their foreheads. Stray dogs, pigs and chickens were moving freely around the village, defecating everywhere. As we walked into Golakd basti, a group of pigs of all sizes tussled in a drain by the pond.

The living conditions in the basti were miserable. It made us wonder what keeps people here. Do they really have no other option? How can the government let them suffer like this –We were grappling with these questions when we met Srikumari’s husband, Suresh Bhuiyan, for the first time. A thin and frail man with short black hair, a weathered face and reddened eyes, Suresh was talkative and outspoken, unlike Srikumari.

The first thing Suresh told us was that the underground coal fires and resultant pollution and subsidence have wreaked havoc in his family’s lives. The basti is sandwiched between coal operations on all four sides: by an operational open-cast coal mine on one side, coal mining overburden on the other, and railway cart coal loading operations on the final two. Dust and polluted air enter the village from every direction, making the lives of the 800 residents in the basti very difficult.

Suresh told us that, along with his family, he used to live in the house right next to the pond. Three years back, dirty water from the pond flooded their house. Suresh, Srikumari and their other family members tried to clear the water several times but failed. When we met Suresh, he was still trying to brush water out of the house with a jhadu (a coconut-frond broom). The house had muddy walls framing three tiny rooms. It had no doors. The clay-tiled roof was peaked and gently sloping.

Sandeep asked Suresh how his house flooded and where he lives now. Suresh explained as he continued to brush water from the house. “The underground fires burnt the coal lying below my house, the land subsided, and the level of my house went below the level of the pond.” Since Suresh’s house had no doors, water from the pond had an easy ride into the house.

When the flooding happened, Suresh, Srikumari, their two younger daughters and their son moved to a house right across the path, where their eldest daughter lived with her husband and three kids. Suresh’s family has been living there ever since. “We destroyed a room from my old house, and used the materials to create a room in my son-in-law’s house,” Suresh told us.

Although Suresh and his family have moved to the new house, their problems have not ended. Fires have worsened in the area, and his family members get sick often. As we continued talking, he stopped sweeping and motioned for us to follow him

Although Suresh and his family have moved to the new house, their problems have not ended. Fires have worsened in the area, and his family members get sick often. As we continued talking, he stopped sweeping and motioned for us to follow him.

About 10 metres down the path, Suresh knocked on his neighbour’s door. A teenage boy came out and greeted us. The boy brought plastic chairs, and soon we were sitting outside a bright green house under a steel roof. Suresh said that we should talk here because there was no space for us to sit and talk in his eldest daughter’s cramped house. Within minutes, we were surrounded by a group of 20 to 30 people – children, women and men from the village who were curious about our visit. They all were very outspoken and frustrated about the fire- situation in the area and the government’s apathy towards them.

As Suresh started talking, he was almost in tears. “I am not able to make ends meet. We have a lot of medical expenses because we are constantly exposed to the smoke and poisonous gases that come out of the fires. And every now and then, people in my family get sick.”

Sandeep asked Suresh if he gets sick too. Suresh laughed and said, “Mein amrit nahi peeta hoon (I don’t drink holy water). Of course, I get sick.” The villagers around us laughed too, but we had a sinking feeling in our stomachs. His face paled. “These coal fires are like slow poison – they are destroying us slowly. Every day.”

(Excerpted from the book, Total Transition: The Human Side of the Renewable Energy Revolution by Sandeep Pai and Savannah Carr-Wilson and published in September, 2018. Pai is a recipient of Ramnath Goenka Award for Excellence in Journalism in 2016 while Carr-Wilson works in the field of Environmental Law in British Columbia, Canada. The book is distributed in Canada by Heritage Group Distribution and in the US by Publishers Group West. Price $22)

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Published: 13 Oct 2018, 4:15 PM