This is the first part of a two-part story about the Jharia Coal Mines. Read part two here.


In the monsoon of August 2021, in the Jinagora region of Jharia, Dhanbad in Jharkhand, 30-35 houses cracked wide open in the excessive rainfall. Four lives were lost and several people sustained injuries. 

Logo ko halki phulki chot lagi thi, people sustained some not-so-serious bruises and injuries,” says Babaan, a resident of Jharia. “In a few days, they had already constructed new houses using bricks lying on the ground at the site of the old houses.”

The year before that, 100-150 houses disappeared into an almost 500ft burning mining cavity. Nobody survived.

In any given year, 25 to 30 such incidents take place in Jharia, especially during the monsoons. According to many reports, the first fire was recorded in the year 1916. Today there are over 77 active fires in the region, some of which have been burning for over 100 years. 

“There is a lot of fire underground. Neeche bahut aag hai. It has been burning for years,” Babaan tells us. “There is smoke coming out of the ground all the time. Sometimes, the floor of the houses cracks wide open for the fire to escape. There is so much smoke and fire that it is difficult to breathe. Because of the heat and the suffocation, we cannot even sleep inside, the children start crying. If you keep rice in the morning, it is ready to eat by evening — the ground is so hot. Subha chawal rakh do toh shaam tak tyaar ho jate hai, zameen itne garam hai.”

There is smoke coming out of the ground all the time | Courtesy Harshal

The history of mining in Jharia dates back to 1894 when it was started by The East India Company (EIC). The EIC mined the coal fields of Jharia in an ad-hoc fashion, without a plan that would ensure the safety and sustainability of the coal fields and of the population of the area. This continued through British rule into post-independence India by when merchants and businesses started to come from across the country to take up coal mines on a 10-30 year lease. The fires here are a result of a century of unscientific, unplanned, and haphazard mining in the area.

Worker quarters built by the East India Company when they first started mining towards the end of the 1800s | Courtesy Harshal

In 1971 the coal industry was nationalised and Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL) was set up as a public sector undertaking of the Government of India’s Ministry of Coal. Since then, BCCL has been overseeing coal mining, safety protocols, planning and rehabilitation in Jharia. An early investigation by the BCCL in 1998 showed that ‘shallow depth working’, ‘thick seam mining’ and ‘multi-seam contiguous panel working’ had created very complex situations which not only initiated the start of the fire but also sped up their spread. It had also taken a toll on the coal reserves.

There are essentially two types of mining carried out in the Jharia Coal Fields – open-cast mining and underground mining. In open-cast mining, coal is extracted from open-air pits which are easy to fill up. While the monsoons aid in putting out fires, there is a constant smoke that hangs in the air. It is the second kind of mining, underground mining, a method wherein coal is extracted from the ground by creating a tunnel or shaft, that is largely responsible for the fires underground.

Between 2000 and 2008 the BCCL made three different master plans to tackle the situation – each taking stock of the fires, their criticality, measures to curb them, budgets, as well as situational updates. But the numbers in each plan tell a story of a steadily worsening situation in Jharia over the years. As per the 2008 Master Plan, there were over 77 active fires, 595 sites proposed for rehabilitation and 44000 houses that need rehabilitation. By then there were also over 24,000 unauthorised mining sites and 30,000 private sites operating in the region.

Visiting Jharia in December 2021, it is hard to see through the yellowish, pale smoke coming from different-sized holes and cracks in the grounds. The irritation in the throat and eyes is evident the moment one enters the coal mines of Jharia; but what is even more evident is the missing pieces of land, the large cavities in the ground, and blown-up cracks, ranging from 5 to 600 feet deep. These cracks are created due to the burning tunnels of coal mines underneath the land parcels or due to vibrations caused by mine blasting in the vicinity.

Four to five generations of inhabitants have been living in settlements around the mines here. Their houses stand distorted, with angled and cracked walls that are no longer perpendicular to the unsteady ground. Most do not even bother to repair their houses because the damage is too frequent and costly, and there is no systemic or guaranteed compensation coming in from either the BCCL or companies who mine these lands on a sublease. Life continues in a cyclical fashion for most of the residents living in this region: constant damage because of the mining results in half-broken walls, ever-expanding cracks etc. which then deteriorate even further due to pre-existing extreme heat and rains. It is almost impossible to keep spending and putting in efforts to repair these houses when the timelines and magnitude of damage are completely unpredictable.

Cracked walls and floor of a house in Jharia | Courtesy Harshal

According to the residents of Jharia, the constant itching and burning sensation in the eyes, throat, and lungs is because of sulphur and phosphorus emissions from open cracks which throw smoke into the very air that they breathe. The toxic gases, pressure disturbances, and thermal effects contribute to the ever-degrading living conditions. The situation is particularly worse during the extreme heat of summer and in the monsoon when the water seepings into the ground, and widens existing cracks. 

Several families are willing to move out of the Jharia Coal Field region out of sheer fear of death. But the process of rehabilitation remains slow, unpredictable, and unviable. Allotment of a new house can take months or might never happen at all. So life often continues for the residents of Jharia in alternative temporary crumbling houses and the future remains unclear.

What looks like an urgent situation in terms of people’s health and the location of their houses, is also intricately tied to people’s lives and livelihoods. None of the residents of the villages of Jharia are employed at the coal mines anymore but they continue to procure coal manually from the mines and sell it at retail rates on the street between Jharia and Dhanbad. This mainly caters to small-scale industries and restaurants. Additionally, several households use this street to carry out vending activities — selling handicrafts, handmade jewellery, fruits, vegetables, food etc. 

Due to the fact that people’s work depends largely on the coal mines and the other street leading to Dhanbad, it does not seem reasonable to argue against mining activities as a whole. On the other hand, people’s health is at great risk, not only in terms of respiratory and other issues that come with living around these mines but the fact that their houses might disappear into over 200ft fire pits anytime. 

So how does one deal with the complexity of a mining area that is inhabited by people who are dependent on the coal mines to live? How do we come out with a policy to address issues of housing, livelihood, as well as safety?

A need for a nuanced and inclusive solution led to the formalisation of the Jharia Samiti 2003. As a collective of representatives from villages in Jharia, the Samiti was able to tune in to people’s lived experiences and started listening closely to their moment of vulnerability, ways of coping, and various needs during instances of a major fire or land cracking open. 

Read part two, Of Safety and Livelihoods: A Life Beyond Tradeoffs in Jharia Coal Mines, for the setting up and workings of the Samiti, the role of the Jharia Rehabilitation and Development Authority set up in 2008, citizen mobilisation in Jharia around issues of housing and safety, and the aggregation of people’s demands in recent years. 

Harshal studied Urban Planning at CEPT University, Ahmedabad and Public Policy at Azim Premji University, Bangalore. He is an independent researcher with a focus on affordable housing, rental housing, urban entitlements, and informal self-employment. Harshal is also one of the four coordinators of the Main Bhi Dilli Campaign, a civil society collective engaging with the preparation of the 2041 Master Plan for Delhi.


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