Underground Coal Fires in Jharia: Various Issues

Jharia is a notified area in Dhanbad district of Jharkhand, known for its rich coal reserves. In recent years, it was frequently in news due to environmental and safety hazards. This article reviews these issues and problems.

Why in news?

On May 24, an incident took place in the Phularibad area of Jharia whereby a father and son, Babloo Ansari and Rahim, fell into a pit in the coalfield area. The NDRF team could not get down into the pit and retrieve their bodies because of the high temperature of the pit due to underground coal fires. Two days after this incident, four other persons fell unconscious in another area of Jharia due to leak of poisonous gases from underground coal fires. The matter was highlighted by media.

Extent of Problems by Underground Coal Fires

The mining in the Jharia Coalfield (JCF) started in 1894, but very soon due to illegal and unsafe mining, an underground fire was reported at Bhowrah Colliery in 1916. Since then, the fires raging underneath Jharia have worsened, resulting in one of the world’s oldest and most widespread mine fires today. Jharia coalfields span over 160 square kilometres and now these pose a risk to nearly 10,000 families living on the surface of coal fields. The region over a span of more than 100 years got converted into a deadly zone of lethal gases, marked with frequent land subsidence activities, and several accidents.

In 1971, when coal mines were first nationalised in India, nearly 70 mining areas in Jharia were on fire. Lacklustre approach of authorities further spread the fire in seven more mining zones. Since then, the situation has been critical.

The Jharia coalmines fires affect the air, water, and land and local population in several ways.

Environmental Hazards

The smoke that comes from the coal fires has poisonous gases including oxides and dioxides of carbon, nitrogen and sulphur; and particulate matter which cause lung and skin diseases. The high level of suspended particulate matter PM2.5 has increased the occurrence of respiratory diseases such as chronic bronchitis and asthma in the region. Besides causing health hazards, the gases also contribute to global warming, for example, Methane is released from these coal seams. These coal fires also pollute the lentic and lotic water systems in the regions by contaminating the water through sulphur and other pollutants that are present in coal. Underground coal fires have also degraded the land in the region and do not allow any vegetation to grow in the region.

Governance Problem

These coal fires badly affect several rail routes passing through the region.  Government has already closed one arterial route i.e. Dhanbad-Patherdih line. Recently, the Indian Railways (IR) has also decided to end its operation on a 35-km line between Chandrapura and Dhanbad that passes through this region. Several other railway routes like the Adra (West Bengal)-Gomoh, and those passing through Sijua, Sendra-Bansjora and Angarpathra areas are now planned to be diverted. The diversion of these routes would lead to revenue losses of nearly Rs 2,500 crore to government. Also, creating a new diversion lane will take 3-4 years and is expected to cost around Rs 3,000 crore. Besides all these, the diversion of railway lines would badly affect the local population, several thousand of whom depend on these lines.

What is being done now?

Recently, the principal secretary to the Prime Minister held a meeting with the stakeholders on May 22 and sought time-bound action to solve the problem. Since there is no technical solution available to do away with the underground coal fires, most of the solutions suggested are based on shifting out arterial railway lines passing through Jharia, and rehabilitation of the population in the affected area.

Way Forward

The underground coal fires were first reported in 1916, but the authorities began seeking a comprehensive solution to this problem only in the early 2000s. If the concerned authorities and the government would have acted at earliest such situation would have not come. However, the sensible thing is to let bygones be bygones and now the officials of the Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL), and Jharia Rehabilitation and Development Authority (JRDA) should work hand in hand to rehabilitate the local population and develop a framework to make the basic socio-economic services and infrastructural facilities available to these people.