On a drizzling afternoon in August last year, Raju Bhuyan, a 42-year-old resident of Mohari Baandhin Jharkhand’s Jharia town, was roaming the streets of the colony. His attention was suddenly drawn to the wall of a nearby house, on which cracks began to appear. Just as he turned his eyes away from the wall, Bhuyan recalled, a deafening thud reverberated in the neighbourhood. He realised then it was a bhudhasaan—subsidence—and he ran home to save his family. But “because there was no electricity, my wife and kids were already outside,” Bhuyan told me. “Tada-tad ghar girne lage.Sab apna ghar chodkar bhagne lage” (One after the other, the houses began to fall. Everyone began to flee their homes.)
Subsidence—the collapse of the surface land—is common in Jharia’s coalfields, owing to the underground mining in the area. When I met Bhuyan, in early November, we stood on the cratered ground of the Mohari Baandh, surrounded by the rubble of homes destroyed during the subsidence he had described. According to Bisnu Bhuyan, another resident of the colony, around 10–12 houses had completely sunk into the ground, and an additional 100—150 houses had been damaged. Despite the damage to their homes, both Raju and Bisnu, like several other residents, continued to live in Mohari Baandh—under tents made of black plastic sheets, which they had pitched beside the road bypassing the colony—because they had not been provided any rehabilitation yet.
Mohari Baandh is a predominantly Dalit colony located on the edge of the Kujama coal mine, where most of the colony’s residents are employed as labourers. The colony is made up primarily of three rows of houses that were distinguishable by the extent to which they had been affected by the surface subsidence. The houses in the first row, which stood beside the main road—the furthest from the mine—showed slight cracks but still had occupants residing in them. The second row, situated further into the colony, was marked by houses with large craters that had debris of bricks in them. The third row, which was closest to the Kujuma mine, comprised abandoned houses , while the surface of a few among them continuously released thick, billowing smoke.
The Kujama mine, as per the Dhanbad administration website, is one of 88 coal mines in the district that are operated by the public-sector undertaking Bharat Coking Coal Limited—though the BCCL’s annual report for 2016–17 indicates that the company operates only 43 mines, including 14 underground, 22 open cast and 7 mixed mines. The BCCL is a subsidiary of Coal India Limited, the state-owned enterprise that dominates coal production in India. Its annual report notes that the company produced 27 million tonnes of coal that year.
Over 90 percent of the BCCL’s coal production comes from the Jharia coalfield—India’s largest coalfield, which spans over 273 square kilometres and contains a coal reserve of 11,000 million tonnes. With over a century-long history of mining, Jharia’s surface is filled with cracks and pits that continuously released thick smoke of sulfurous gases and fire. In 2008, the BCCL released a master plan on dealing with the fire and subsidence hazards of the mining areas, in which it proposed the resettlement and rehabilitation of its residents within 12 years. The master plan was a revised and updated version of an earlier plan released in 1999, and in August 2009, the central government approved the plan.