In Jharia’s coalfields, residents live under a constant fear of subsidence, with little promise of rehabilitation

In Jharia’s coalfields, barely any rehabilitation had taken place, and the residents of the area appeared to casually continue their daily lives, even as thick smoke and small fires marked the landscape, and the threat of another subsidence loomed large. Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket/Getty Images
31 May, 2018

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.

With only three years remaining until the deadline, and the BCCL and state government making minimal progress in the rehabilitation of the affected residents, it appears highly unlikely that the process will be completed within the stipulated time. In March 2016, Piyush Goyal, who was then the minister of state for coal in the union ministry, stated in the Lok Sabha that among the 79,159 families eligible for resettlement, only 4,049 families—approximately five percent—had been shifted out of their houses. Amid this lack of momentum, the residents of Jharia have continued to suffer—due to the effect on their health due to their proximity to the coal mines, the fatal accidents that occur in the fire hazards and subsidence in the area, and the lack of institutional support for compensation and rehabilitation.

The first reported incident of a fire breaking out in the Jharia coalfields occurred in 1916, in the region’s Bhowrah colliery. The first institutional articulation of the safety concerns due to subsidence and fire hazards in Jharia’s coalfields was presented in 1979, by a committee that the central government had constituted three years earlier. According to the BCCL’s master plan, the committee found that “there are many towns, villages, rivers, jores, roads, railway line etc., in Jharia Coalfield which are standing over small pillars/stooks reported to be water logged.” It further noted, “If, by any chance, this water drains away it may cause subsidence. In addition, fire is also active in some areas, causing danger to the surface structure.”

In 1996, the central government introduced the first institutional mechanism to review these fire and subsidence concerns by setting up a “high power committee”, which included members from the coal and labour ministries, the Director General of Mines Safety, and managing directors from CIL and its subsidiaries. Three years later, the committee prepared the first master plan on dealing with fire, subsidence and rehabilitation. However, the focus of the 1999 master plan was on dealing with fire hazards. After the intervention of the Supreme Court, the BCCL proposed a revised master plan in 2008, which introduced a focus on the evacuation of the affected areas and rehabilitation of its residents.

In its 2008 master plan, the BCCL identified 595 sites within the mining sites it operates in Jharkhand’s Jharia and West Bengal’s Raniganj coalfields, comprising 98,314 houses, for evacuation. Of these, 44,155 houses belonged to BCCL workers—but noting that the “manpower in BCCL is continuously reducing,” the master plan reduced the number of the company’s workers entitled to rehabilitation to 25,000. As a result, a total of 79,159 houses are proposed to be resettled under the plan, including 53,291 houses belonging to non-BCCL workers, and 868 non-BCCL buildings, such as religious places, schools and police stations.

The central government approved the plan with an estimated investment of Rs 7,112 crore for the Jharia coalfield. The plan splits the onus of its implementation between the BCCL, which is responsible for the rehabilitation and resettlement of the company’s workers, and the Jharia Rehabilitation and Development Authority, or JRDA—a state-government agency responsible for the rehabilitation of the non-BCCL residents of the affected areas.

The master plan’s 12-year time period included a two-year period for the pre-implementation activities, such as carrying out a demographic survey and determining the estimate of funds required for the rehabilitation. But according to the minutes of an October 2017 board meeting of the JRDA, the agency is yet to complete the demographic survey. In fact, the minutes note that the JRDA was supposed to finish the survey of around 23,847 unauthorised houses in the region, but “during the survey, the number was found to have increased to around 91,000.”

In the JRDA board meeting, the members, who included district and BCCL officials, discussed the subsidence that occurred at Mohari Baandh colony in August that year. According to the minutes of the meeting, the board had directed the sub-divisional officer and district magistrate of Dhanbad to obtain a list of affected families from the BCCL management. The minutes note that although around 200 families were affected by the subsidence, the BCCL provided a list of only 107 families—of which, only 25 were provided houses on a contingency basis.

The minutes note that the board used a cut-off date of 2009 to determine the eligibility of the affected families for the rehabilitation plan—effectively excluding 175 families, or over 90 percent of the Mohari Baandh families affected by the subsidence. Prajapati Paswan, a 40-year-old activist from Jharia, told me that even the 25 families who were given temporary shelter in the BCCL quarters “were soon driven out” and had to return to the colony.

In Jharia’s coalfields, barely any rehabilitation had taken place, and the residents of the area appeared to casually continue their daily lives, even as thick smoke and small fires marked the landscape, and the threat of another subsidence loomed large. My conversations with the residents indicated that the fires and subsidence in the area was a reality that they had accepted. “Yeh aag zameen ke andar hamesha sulagta rehta hai”—A fire is always smouldering below the surface, Parja Paswan, a 40-year-old resident and a local activist, told me. Paswan added that around 9–10 such colonies surrounding different collieries in Dhanbad had “disappeared into the ground during my life time.”

In May last year, at Jharia’s Indira Chowk, a father and his son died after the land near their shop subsided.  Bablu Ansari, who worked as a mechanic, was opening his shop, when the road besides the shop collapsed inwards. While Bablu was trying to save Rahim, his 12-year-old son, they both got buried in the subsided land. Paswan told me, “Yeh ghatna kabhi bhi ghat sakta hai, jis tarah baap-beta zameen ke andar chala gaya.” (These incidents can occur at any point, the manner in which the father and son were swallowed into the ground.)

I met Bablu’s brother, Munna, who was still staying at the same house where Bablu had lived, barely 15 feet away from the site where the subsidence had occurred. At the house, Noorjahan, Munna’s grandmother, told me that their bodies were never recovered. Munna said that after the incident, the district administration relocated the family of six, including three children, to an abandoned government school located around seven kilometres away. “There was no facility there,” Munna told me, referring to the lack of clean water supply and shelter at the abandoned school. He added that the family stayed there for four months, but “finally decided to leave when my baby fell sick due to the rain.”

According to the coal ministry’s annual report of 2017–18, the BCCL reported 27 serious accidents and 15 fatal accidents from 2015 to 2017. But local activists told me this data does not include the accidents that occurred around the mining areas and resulted in the deaths of the non-BCCL employees, nor the damage to their houses. According to Suresh Gupta, a trade-union leader of mining workers in the area and a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), only a few accidents in the mines are reported to the BCCL. He added, “Contractors engaged by the BCCL bury any news of accidents to avoid paying compensation. The actual number of accidents could be very high in as well as outside the coal mines.”

But the Jharia master plan does not prescribe any institutional arrangement to compensate residents whose kin have died due to the fires or subsidence. It only allots the procedure for rehabilitation and resettlement, and in case no alternate house is provided, for the compensation to rebuild a house on an allotted plot of land. In July last year, in response to a question in the Lok Sabha about the expenditure incurred by CIL and its subsidiary companies on compensation, Goyal submitted that the BCCL’s expenditure was “Nil” for the period from 2014 till July 2017.

Munna told me that he had received Rs 2 lakh from the state government, but Harekrishna, a 45-year-old resident of the Mohari Baandh colony, said his neighbor, Rampravesh, had lost his mother during the August subsidence but the family had not received any compensation. Harekrishna added that Rampravesh’s family had left the village after the incident. According to Paswan, the government “selectively releases such payments” depending on the attention an incident receives from the local media or activists.

In addition to the prevailing fear of fire hazards and subsidence in the area, several residents also complained about the ill effects that Jharia’s coalfields appearing to be having on their health, including multiple complaints of a difficulty in breathing. Noorjahan, the resident of Indira Chowk, told me, “Hamra saans ki bimari hai, saans fulta hai”—I have a breathing problem, my breathing gets heavy.

In December 2015, four environmentalists working with the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, a national research and development organisation, conducted a study on the health of people living near the Jharia coalfields. The study found that nearly all the residents suffered from several diseases, including joint discomfort, eye irritation, general weakness, dizziness, and bronchitis.

In his March 2016 submission before the Lok Sabha, Goyal had also stated that the BCCL had again reduced the number of houses it had to construct for resettlement to 15,852 “due to retirement of BCCL employees.” He noted that as of then, only 2,612, or 16 percent, of the BCCL workers had been resettled, whereas only 1,437, or three percent, of the non-BCCL residents of the affected areas had been shifted out. Moreover, according to Goyal, the number of non-BCCL families had “increased to around 1,20,000 nos. as per the recent demographic surveys done by the JRDA.”

Goyal added, “The delay is mainly due to non-acquisition / non- availability of suitable land outside of coal bearing area for rehabilitation purpose.” It is evident that the state government has not only failed in its obligation to resettle the affected residents, but it also does not appear to have any strategy for the residents who settled in Jharia after 2009. In fact, the financing of the rehabilitation process, too, appears woefully inadequate.

For financing the rehabilitation, Goyal’s statement to the Lok Sabha noted, the CIL is required to contribute Rs 350 crore per annum from its internal resources and the balance from the accruals of stowing excise duty under the Coal Mines Act, 1974. It further stated that, as on 3 March 2016, the CIL had released only Rs 810 crore for its implementation. It is relevant to note that according to the BCCL’s annual report of 2016–17, the company made a net profit of Rs 763 crore during the financial year 2014–15, and Rs 768 crore in 2015-16. In November last year, I emailed officials of the CIL, BCCL and JRDA regarding the compensation released and the pace of the rehabilitation process. At the time this story was published, I had not received a response from any of them.

The minutes of JRDA’s 2016 annual meeting further show that the implementing agency for the Jharia master plan was not ready to commit to pay for the electricity and other public amenities at Belgoria, a newly-built township where the affected residents were proposed to be resettled. The minutes noted, “The running cost of all the facilities i.e. water supply, power supply, schools, dispensary, etc shall not be the part of compensation package and will have to be looked after to the panchayat and other bodies of the state government.” At the time, the township owed Rs 66 lakh to the Jharkhand Electricity Corporation Limited, and the JRDA had decided it would make a one-time payment of the pending amount, after which it would stop paying for its electricity.

The subsidence in Jharia’s coalfields, however, does not appear to be showing any signs of stopping. Paswan told me, “Yahan toh hamesha bhudasaan hotey rehta hai, magar loot ki chhoot hai”—Subsidence is always taking place, but there is a freedom to loot.