MAC: Mines and Communities

New film exposes "hell on earth" in India's eastern coal fields

Published by MAC on 2009-05-05

Broadcast last month on British TV's Channel Four in its "Unreported World" series, "India: Children of the Inferno" scorchingly depicts the plight of thousands of poor rural Indians, many of them Indigenous, trapped within the Jharia coal fields of Jharkhand state.

Their only source of fuel is coal collected by hand from the slag heaps, as spontaneous combustion and toxic fumes swirl around them.

According to the film's reporter and director, the only prospect offered to the women, children and men sacrificed to this massive enterprise, is removal en bloc from their own land, as extraction inexorably expands over several hundred square kilometres.

"The effect India's reliance on coal could have on climate change in the future is causing global concern", they comment. "But, here on the ground, it's clear that for locals, a nightmarish existence is already a reality."

Nor should we forget that such an existence is shared by those working for the coal company itself, in conditions which are hardly better.

A Vision of Hell

Channel 4 website

24th April 2009

"Unreported World" reveals a vision of hell in North East India, where the earth is literally on fire as vast subterranean coal fires burn out of control beneath towns and villages, children mine coal day in day out, and half a million people are being moved out of their ancestral villages to make way for the coal mines fuelling India's growth.

Reporter Aidan Hartley and director Edward Watts begin their journey in the Jharia coalfields in Jharkand state. The air is filled with smoke and poisonous gas as fires smoulder in the ground all around them. The flames are from underground coal seams which are spontaneously combusting over an area of several hundred square kilometres.

Huge open cast and underground mines produce hundreds of millions of coal to feed the electricity and steel industries. But these mines are also threatening the health and homes of millions as the fires they've caused encroach on towns and villages. The team visits Bokapardi village, where hundreds of families live above the fire. The land beneath their feet is hot and everywhere smoke and sulphurous gases escape from thousands of fissures and cracks.

Despite living in these terrible conditions, locals tell Hartley that they are so poor they have no choice but to stay in the village. The only way to make a living is by scavenging coal and the team films hundreds of people, including young children, gathering coal. One young girl, Dolly, says she works every day of the year gathering coal. Walking shoeless across sharp stones and hot coals, she tells Hartley that she makes less than a pound a day. Like the rest of her family, she's never been to school.

Other locals tell Hartley that this wasteland was once a place of forests, rivers and farms. But mining is destroying the environment, forcing farmers to become coal scavengers. The team finds entire families working together in precarious shafts they've dug by hand.

A local doctor describes how villagers are now suffering from a battery of lung diseases caused by air pollution. One woman tells Hartley that her husband and a daughter were killed by respiratory illnesses. Now she is very sick, and her surviving daughter is suffering regular nosebleeds.

The team moves on to the village of Hutchuktar. Locals tell Hartley that just two years ago everything was green. Now, everything is black and cracks are opening up in homes as the fires advance beneath the village.

Hartley meets with the state-owned Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL) company which runs the mines, to discuss the situation with villages where locals are being asked to leave their ancestral lands. He discusses BCCL plans to move up to 500,000 people out of fire-affected areas to make way for new mines.

Moving on again, the team travels to Belguria, a housing scheme funded by BCCL to accommodate people it wants to move. They are shown the one bedroom houses where families often numbering up to ten are expected to live.

BCCL managing director T.K Lahiri tells the team that compensation is offered to anyone who qualifies for it under the company's guidelines.

But in another town, Kasunda, the risks of staying are clear. A former resident tells Hartley that two years ago the ground beneath his home just collapsed and several houses were engulfed. He and his family survived but his brother and six others of his family were all killed. What was once a thriving place with 500 houses, a school, and a temple is now a ghost town.

Everywhere the team travels in Jharia the fires are burning. The effect India's reliance on coal could have on climate change in the future is causing global concern. But, here on the ground, it's clear that for locals, a nightmarish existence is already a reality.

"I have never witnessed anything like it"

Aidan Hartley

Channel Four website

24th April 2009

I have never witnessed anything like India´s coalmine fires. Two images will always stick in my mind.

One is the sight of an entire cliff of coal on fire, millions of tonnes of coal burning out of control with red and blue flames in the smoggy twilight.

The scale of the fires -- caused by coal seams heating up on exposure to open air due to poor mining practices until they burst into flames - is frightening as they spread across 360 square kilometres of Jharia´s coalfields in Jharkand state.

The other is when we saw Devanand, an eight-year-old boy, rolling two heavy lumps of coal across a wasteland. Too poor to go to school, he was pushing the coal home for his mother to cook with -- but there were no houses for miles around and he was making such slow progress it was agonising to watch.

And that was the paradox of the story. India wants to extract as much coal as it can to drive its economy and drag citizens out of abject poverty.

But are people like Devanand victims or beneficiaries of this master plan?

Multitudes of local people here once lived as farmers. They were poor but they had dignity and now - well, many of them are just poor. And now India´s state coal mining company wants to move 500,000 people out of the fire-hit area of Jharia, the largest migration of people in India since Partitition.

India already extracts 400 million tonnes of coal a year and that figure is set to increase.

While India has a right to economic growth, this surely does not excuse the country from allowing coalfields to burn unchecked, an act of extraordinary environmental vandalism mirrored in other countries including the USA.

At a time when the world debates how to urgently cut carbon emissions, the sheer scale of the inferno alarmed me. I wondered what the point of putting a little windmill on your home is, or fussing about your personal carbon footprint, when there´s this going on.

Shooting the film was a physical ordeal. Producer Ed Watts and I would come out of the mines each day blackened head to foot with coal dust. The searing heat of the fires and poisonous fumes scoured our lungs and smarted the eyes. We went through three cameras because clouds of dust kept clogging them up.

It astonished me that people had to live in this hell, where so many of those toiling as coal scavengers and miners were children. They suffer terrible illnesses due to the pollution and life expectancy is shorter than most parts of India.

But at the same time I found the beauty of the locations stunning. We´d be filming in clouds of smog and dust and out of the murk would emerge a line of women in brightly coloured saris, walking out of the mines and into a village with golden straw haystacks and waggle-eared water buffalo chewing the cud among cosy mud houses.

The forests being eaten up by the coalmines are the places where the Buddha lived and found enlightenment 2,400 years ago. This is the fast vanishing home of India´s indigenous tribal people - and until recently it was a natural paradise. The name `Jharkand´ means `land of trees´ and it was once full of tigers and wildlife. This is now just a memory as trees, hills, rivers and springs are pulverised by the bulldozers.

It was a privilege to make this film about an issue for a country at such a crossroads.

Clips from the film are viewable at:

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