Making hell holes

  • 14/07/2000

Making hell holes There are some clear indications of the air quality in Jharia and Dhanbad. The dust particles in the air contain carcinogenic polyaromatic hydrocarbons (pahs), particulate matter smaller than 10 microns (pm10), carbon compounds and trace metals that are also carcinogenic, says D N Singh, scientist at Central Fuel Research Institute (cfri), Dhanbad. Fires in as many as 70 mines of Jharia release gases such as benzopyrines, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide.

The blasting operations in Jharia throw up very fine dust particles over a radius of two-three km; visibility is reduced greatly, points out Gurdeep Singh, professor at the Indian School of Mines (ism) in Dhanbad (see box: The health effects).T N Singh, former director of the Central Mining Research Institute (cmri) , says: "Coal-crushing plants are not well protected. This is why around 2 to 3 kilometres of area around these plants has become absolutely black."

To make matters worse, several thermal power and steel plants near Jharia town are heavily polluting. Among the units causing air pollution is the Bokaro Steel Plant. Thermal power stations and fertiliser plants did not have any electrostatic precipitators installed, according to B K Tewary, scientist at the Reclamation and Environmental Management of cmri, Dhanbad.

According to Gurdeep Singh, water is extremely polluted in the entire Jharia coal belt. The reason: effluents from coal washeries, coke-ovens and thermal power plants. A research paper submitted in 1995 to ism suggests that the chemical oxygen demand in the water of Damodar river near a bccl coal washery was very high. Damodar river is the only source of water for the region. As a result people are suffering from an acute shortage of drinking water.

The coal belt is also ideal for striking underhand deals. The officials at the washeries allow the release of pure coal in the form of slurry in the Damodar river. Then, workers hired by the mafia collect the coal and sell it in the open market. Because of this, the colour of Damodar has turned black, says Singh. A bccl official says that it is extremely difficult to meet the specifications laid down by the pollution control boards. As thermal power plants release ash into the Damodar, the river is in a pathetic condition near the Bokaro thermal plant, points out the official. Result: heavy sedimentation has occurred and the natural course of the river has changed.

Mining in forests
Government agencies are even violating the laws protecting forests. A startling revelation came to light in November 1999, when the Union government gave 166.91 hectares of forestland in Tandva area of Chatra district, Bihar, on lease for the Rs 2,600-crore Ashoka Opencast Project of the Central Coalfields Limited (ccl) without prior environment clearance. It is mandatory for a company to submit its environmental clearance certificate under the Forest Conservation Act before getting approval of such activities in a forestland.

B D Bhagat, principal chief conservator of forests, Bihar, ignored objections made by his field officers and given the go-ahead to the project in Satpahari. "The final forest clearance in the same area, which acts as a corridor for some animals, was earlier given for the Piparwar Coal Project and the Mcluskieganj-Piparwar railway line," observed Bhagat during a meeting held in Ranchi on August 13, 1999. So no problem was foreseen in giving away the said forest for the Ashoka project.

There are 12 wildlife species, including leopard, spotted deer, barking deer, wolves and bears, and 19 tree species in the forest. S E H Kazmi, divisional forest officer, Hazaribagh (west), says more than 80 percent of wildlife has already vanished from them area. The forestland is also the migratory corridor for elephants. The ccl has already paid Rs 8.15 crore as compensation for destroying over 21,000 trees. Recently, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee laid the foundation for a thermal power plant in Tandva. This project, too, has not got clearance from the forest department, say officials.

According to M K Chakraborty, scientist at cmri, who is involved in a study project on the carrying capacity of the Damodar basin, the forest cover of Hazaribagh district stood at 21 per cent in 1977. But in 1997, it came down to just 14 per cent."The degradation of the habitat of these animals and their migratory corridors is being further compounded by... developmental activities like mining, the construction of super thermal power plants and road and railway network in this region," says the study.

"If the government does not plan to develop sal forests before allowing coal mining in more areas, the prime sal reserves of Hazaribagh may become a thing of the past," says Ashok Prasad, conservator, social forestry, Hazaribagh region. The government is releasing forestland, all the while claiming that it will maintain about 33 per cent of forest cover. "If the government really wants to protect forests, it should first fix the limits," says J L Srivastava, chief conservator of forests (wildlife), Bihar. The local people, disillusioned by government inaction and mismanagement, are tying up with the coal mafia to engage in illegal mining (see box: Illegal mining in tribal areas).

Forests are also logged to promote opencast mining. "Opencast mines have left behind a poxed surface that has become a cancer of the land," says Srivastava. Underground mining is no longer viable. C S Pandey, superintendent of a pit in Barari coalmines of Jharia, says, "We are working in abject conditions. As the demand for coal increases pollution and safety problems are also increasing." People living in these resource-rich areas are abysmally poor. Their farmlands have been taken over, their ecology has been ruined and they have been left to face acute poverty. Even their houses have not been spared as the threat of subsidence always looms large.

Sinking cities of ravaged lands
"Slaughter mining is more rampant today than what it was before nationalisation. If proper attention is not given immediately, the time will come when a series of subsidence may take place in a short span," warns T N Singh, former director, cmri. One of the main reasons for subsidence is that the public sector companies have not introduced new technologies. At present, the bccl has a total stretch of degraded land spread over an area of 62.96 sq km in Jharia due to unscientific mining. The subsided area is about 30 sq km in the Raniganj Coalfields of Burdwan, West Bengal, where mining of coal was first started in India in 1774. More area is likely to be degraded due to subsidence. In the Central Coalfields, nearly 7.45 sq km is degraded, of which 3.08 sq km is due to subsidence, according to a 1998 report by the cmri.

A monitoring committee had declared four localities, in an area of 11.80 sq km in the Asansol-Raniganj belt, as unsafe for human habitation. The committee, among others, comprised B K Chowdhary, the then chairperson of Coal India Limited (cil). About 10 years have passed without the state government or the Centre taking any steps for evacuation or rehabilitation of the residents. The director general of Mines Safety (dgms) has already served notices to the residents to evacuate the area. As no provisions for alternative accommodation have been made, people are forced to stay on with the fear of imminent disaster looming large. In 1992, the State Planning Board drew up a detailed scheme for setting up a satellite township in a safer area to rehabilitate about 53,000 people.

Yet only Rs 22 crore was utilised for subsidence control out of the Rs 75 crore allocated during the Eighth Five Year Plan, according to a 1996-97 report by the Standing Committee on Energy. In its 10th report to the Union coal ministry, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Coal had expressed fears that the G T Road as well as the main lines of Eastern Railway may subside in the Raniganj-Dhanbad stretch.

About 34.97 sq km of area in Jharia Coalfields is under subsidence. It is mentioned in the jcf reconstruction programme that 70 per cent of the underground production of coal would come by caving and the balance 30 per cent by stowing. Subsidence caused by underground mining would affect 101 sq km, according to the executive summary of the cmri report on the Damodar river basin.

This takes a heavy toll on human lives. Runu Sen of Bihar Colliery Kamgar Union, Dhanbad, says that on January 13, 2000, two workers, Mohammed Jalal Ansari, and Jagmohan Oraon, were buried under rubble when the roof collapsed in pit number six of the Barari coalmine. Hundreds of such cases take place due to negligence and improper infrastructure to stop roof cave-ins and subsidence. "Underground mining technology is in a mess. We have not improved beyond the pre-nationalisation level. Unless technology is improved such incidents will continue to take place," adds T N Singh.

The fire in the 'belly'
Spread over an areas of 17.32 sq km, 70 mines of Jharia have fires raging in them. About 636 million tonnes of coking coal and 1,238 million tonnes of non-coking coal is blocked due to this. But more alarming are the problems that the residents face due to subsidence and the fires. "In some houses we found that cracks had appeared in the wall and the temperature was so high that they could bake potatoes," says T N Singh. In Lodana area, which comes under jcf , even the roads are burning hot.

During 1978-82, an exercise was initiated immediately after the nationalisation to control the fire. The Union government started 10 projects, five of which were successful and about 98 million tonnes of coal was saved. But later on, it was allowed to spread, and the situation is back to square one.

Singh says that the first priority of the government should be to immediately resettle 78 villages of jcf. There are around 22,000 people living in these villages, and the fires are approaching them at a rapid rate. Krishna Paswan, secretary of the Jharkhand Janata Majdoor Union in Jharia, says people in a mine in Barari fainted on November 24, 1999, after carbon monoxide gas started leaking from the mine suddenly.

N C Saxena, professor at ism's Centre of Mining Environment, Dhanbad, says jcf is the most exploited coalfield in the country because of the metallurgical grade coal reserves available. "The ground surface has been damaged due to subsidence and due to formation of cracks that reach up to the surface, enhancing the chances of spontaneous heating of coal seams and causing mine fires," he says. Saxena says there has no subsidence management planning.

About one billion tonnes of coal is still trapped in the mines due to the fires. But it seems that the authorities do not want to spend money on rehabilitation, even if the amount of money that can be gained from that coal is quite significant. "It is hard to understand why don't they make suitable package. I believe if the people get a proper package, they will certainly move out of Jharia," says Saxena. But the local people allege that the bccl does not have any proper rehabilitation plan for the sinking town. Prashant Srivastava, a resident of Jharia, says bccl is trying to force people out of the town: "We are fighting for our survival. We don't want to shift from here unless we are given proper housing facilities and the means to earn a livelihood."

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