Saturday, July 02, 2016

Dirty coal

Coal India is determined to fulfil the Narendra Modi government's dream of doubling India's coal production to 1.5 billion tonnes by 2020. Around 90% of this is likely to come from open-cast mines. Why Open-cast Mining? "Open-cast mining is disastrous for both the environment and the people living in the region but it requires less investment and less time to extract coal. Today, the government behemoth, through its numerous subsidiaries, extracts around 490 million tonnes out of the total 565 million tonnes India produces annually. Jharia's coalfields are India's largest reserves of high-grade coal required in the making of steel. India spends $4 billion a year on importing that grade alone. As on April 1, 2015, Coal India had 430 coal mines of which 175 were open-cast, 227 underground and 28 mixed mines. Production from open-cast mines during 2014-15 was 92.91% of total production.

Every morning, in open-cast mines around Jharia in Dhanbad, Jharkhand, thousands of people "pick" coal to sell it and make a living. They do it illegally and that's why early mornings are suitable to dig out coal and carry it up to a strip of land that overlooks the main mining area. The process is simple: women and men break coal with their picks and shovels, fill their cane baskets and carry them on their heads up to the stocking area; the children help in carrying the coal. This goes on till the sun goes down. Dumpers belonging to a private company that operates this particular mine ply nonstop, going deep around the spiral and then coming up again. The supervisors in their 4x4 air-conditioned vehicles take rounds but ignore the villagers. Like the opening hour of a stock exchange, everybody is busy. A teenage girl fills her basket with small pieces; a man plays music on his phone while digging with his pick. In the background the drone of heavy engines of bulldozers and trucks remains a constant. Money is made by the coal mafia and not by the likes of Savitri. Like with any other natural product, value is added at each step and the real producer gets the lowest price. For her, one kilo of coal fetches nothing more than Rs 1.

The first record of fire raging in the Jharia coalfields dates to 1916. Since then, these fires have been burning continuously and have turned the region into a deadly zone of lethal gases, land subsidence, multiple displacements and accidents. According to government records, fires have already burnt up more than 35 million tonnes of coal and access to another 2 billion tonnes remains blocked; in the market this coal is prized at $200 billion.

 People are dying slowly because of the khooni gas. At a Jharia hospital, Dr OP Agarwal estimates that every week 40-50 patients come to see him complaining of asthma or TB. "Sustained exposure to methane is very harmful in the long-term. Being poor, they are at a much greater risk than people like me who can afford to be indoors in air-conditioned buildings and cars. As a result, life-expectancy of villagers who live close to the mine or work with coal is not more than 50-55 years." He blames open-cast mines for this. "Earlier, there were mainly underground mines but now the government is aggressively pushing open-cast mining and wants us all to leave the town."

"The town has become an island. All around it are open-cast mines and fires rage in them night and day. The surface temperature is higher because of the simmering fire inside. Jharia is counting its last years and a major catastrophe can occur any time," warns Govind Sharma, a journalist working in Jharia for the last 30 years.

Those who believe that the threat to the environment can be dealt with within the capitalist system are hopelessly wrong. These dreamers imagine that politicians whose task it is to run the production for profit system can be persuaded to recognize and act on the danger which pollution brings to the planet. The continuation of capitalism on its blind and uncontrolled course is a gamble on the conditions of life itself.

The World Socialist Party (India): 257 Baghajatin ‘E’ Block (East), Kolkata – 700086,
Tel: 2425-0208,

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