You realise you are entering the village of Jharia by the colour of the houses. The walls are blackened, the statue that greets you arriving from Dhanbad is the colour of soot, and the ground is invariably grey-black. You get out of the car and feel like you are entering quicksand of mud and scorched earth.
Beyond this small town lies an area as large as Milan and perhaps even more significant. In the coal-soaked air, one can smell the acrid odour of sulphur and hear the noise of the large coal mining plants. The craters are about 300 metres in diameter and about 250 metres deep. Mining today is easier than it was until the 1970s. Decommissioning traditional mines has allowed the emergence of more profitable exploitations for the industry. New technologies enable excavations with robust, sophisticated machinery to replace miners’ work. This is the result of Jharia, an immense hole in the ground on one of the many borders of the world where many people work, digging, sifting and sorting coal for their subsistence.
In 1971, the industry abandoned most of the mines, resulting in the residual coal spontaneously combusting. In particular, BCCL – Bharat Coking Coal Limited closed the underground mines to open the new industrial front. But this unregulated decision in one of the world’s poorest regions has created many illegal workers, officially excluded from the industrial process but unofficially part of it. Cracks in the ground up to a few tens of metres long give off perennial flames, which makes this area resemble hell.
Jharia’s illegal workers
Alongside industry, illegal workers live and work. For them, the health situation is highly precarious, and multidimensional poverty is something one can touch. The latter includes minimum living conditions such as clean water supply, electricity, nutrition and education. Illegal coal workers work separately. They dig and harvest coal in a place that produces some 20 billion tonnes of ore annually for the country’s major industries. They earn about 1,000 rupees per week – about 15 euros – and constantly suffer from respiratory diseases. In the coal region, they work early in the morning and the evening at dusk. The ore is collected at unique points at industrial excavations or near storage and shipping facilities.
As the most mineral-rich area in India, deaths in this area are higher than the national average. Not for nothing does this area have a PM10 rate at least three times higher than the permitted limit. I have seen young children working with their parents and women transporting several hundred metres with the load on their heads. Mining men to whom I gave water to quench their thirst, sincere and smiling for such a simple gesture. Life in Jharia is a closed circuit like other places in the world. The perpetuation of a situation from which it is very difficult to escape. A sort of vicious circle of survival and self-denial. A very blurred boundary between hope and survival.