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It has often been cited as one of the worst ecological disasters in India since Independence, an arid coal-belt region with no expectations or hope of relief. No one here had ever imagined that beyond this dark, underground abyss where a mindless fire raged eternally, a different kind of life and landscape could be possible, under a different earth and sky.
That's why Pinaki Roy of Jharia in Jharkhand just could not believe the news. It seemed impossible. But it was there, all over the papers. The Supreme Court had awarded a Rs 6,000-crore rehabilitation package for the fire-ravaged town in the mafia-controlled Dhanbad coal belt where brutalised miners stake their lives under the earth in sub-human conditions, often without even the benefit of basic human rights. This is the reason why Pinaki feels vindicated. "After the endless ordeal, we have accomplished something," he told Outlook.
For almost 70 long years, a devastating underground fire has been raging in India's "premier coal belt" around Jharia. Half-hearted efforts to put out the flames did not succeed even while the national exchequer sustained enormous losses. "It will easily run into thousands of crores," says S.N. Majumdar, former Coal India geophysicist, who has worked on fire control missions.
The damage to the environment was even more stark: the sudden heating of the ground and the sharp spurts of noxious gases led to houses, railway tracks and roads caving in, besides crop loss and landslips. Then there was the daily trauma of living with the fire, the flames visible through cracks in the parched earth. For the people of Jharia, this hell-fire was an eternal cycle of condemnation.
The Supreme Court order might at last bring relief. The order envisages the relocation of the people of Jharia (population 700,000) in four phases. This task has to be undertaken jointly by the state and the Centre. The court has directed that the protection of people living in the 450 sq km stretch around the worst-hit area be given top priority. The assistance of foreign agencies in coordinating relief and rehabilitation has also been allowed. And the entire exercise must be completed in 20 years. The sum of Rs 6,000 crore will be provided by the Centre.
The Jharkhand government has initiated preliminary steps to help in rehabilitation. The three public sector coal companies in the area will help the government in identifying hot and cold spots, assess property value and prepare evacuation plans. They will select and requisition land, construct new buildings and demolish the old ones.
Old-timers in Dhanbad recall that the fire started in 1932 from a colliery in East Jharia. A chance spark from a Davy safety lamp ignited the inflammable marsh gas tightly packed in the underground. That is how the world's longest-raging fire spread. "It was symbolic of the way the British ruled India. The collieries were mostly British-owned. Their sole intention was to exploit the resources with cheap labour and make profits. They cared two hoots about the people or ecology. Efforts to put out the fire were half-hearted. So it started spreading," says a Coal India official.
At present, an area measuring around 300 square km in the heart of India's coal country remains endangered. Explains Majumdar: "To control the fire it was important to separate it from the underground coal seams and cut off the oxygen supply. It'll cost a great deal of money. The authorities never had the will or that kind of money. We needed to cut trenches to approach the active fire zones. But not much was done."
Soviet and Polish experts did arrive in the '80s. Their recommendations were only partially implemented. "Fighting an underground fire of this magnitude calls for huge sums of money, equipment and manpower," say CIL sources.The media (including Outlook) did report on the simmering catastrophe. Short filmmakers documented the ecological tragedy. But nothing changed. The people of Jharia were fated to live with the fire.
That is when Pinaki Roy, a leader of the Jharia Coalfields Bachao Samiti (JCBS), took up the cause, with friends and workers of the coal belt. The JCBS rallied around all the political parties in Jharkhand. It organised protest marches, signature and awareness campaigns. It was a long and frustrating struggle, but they didn't lose hope. Finally, they petitioned the Supreme Court.
The apex court's ruling has given Roy and his friends something to cheer about. Years of slogging away has yielded success. All their hopes now rest with the Jharkhand government. Will it implement the roadmap drawn by the SC quickly, fairly and efficiently? Will it be, finally, a farewell to the hell-fire?