Story

The Tragedy at Ganshadih

December 02, 2016|

price_india_burning_coal_001.jpg

A young girl carries scavenged coal from the bottom of the Alkusha Coalfield.

A young girl carries scavenged coal from the bottom of the Alkusha Coalfield. Image by Larry C. Price. India, 2016.

price_india_burning_coal_002.jpg

A woman warms herself in the pre-dawn hours over a burning pile of coal.

A woman warms herself in the pre-dawn hours over a burning pile of coal. Image by Larry C. Price. India, 2016.

price_india_burning_coal_003.jpg

At sunrise, a woman jabs a steel into a burning pile of coal.

At sunrise, a woman jabs a steel into a burning pile of coal. Image by Larry C. Price. India, 2016.

price_india_burning_coal_004.jpg

Women and young girls carry scavenged coal from the bottom of the Alkusha Coalfield.

Women and young girls carry scavenged coal from the bottom of the Alkusha Coalfield. Image by Larry C. Price. India, 2016.

price_india_burning_coal_006.jpg

Flames leap from underground fires near the tiny settlement of Ganshadih on the edge of the Alkusha mine.

Flames leap from underground fires near the tiny settlement of Ganshadih on the edge of the Alkusha mine. Image by Larry C. Price. India, 2016.

price_india_burning_coal_007.jpg

A woman tends a coal fire.

A woman tends a coal fire used to reduce raw coal into charcoal. The charcoal will eventually be sold in local markets. Image by Larry C. Price. India, 2016.

price_india_burning_coal_008.jpg

A woman tends a coal fire.

A woman tends a coal fire used to reduce raw coal into charcoal. The charcoal will eventually be sold in local markets. Image by Larry C. Price. India, 2016.

price_india_burning_coal_009.jpg

A young girls brings a basket of scavenged coal to a pile for burning into charcoal.

A young girl brings a basket of scavenged coal to a pile for burning into charcoal. Image by Larry C. Price. India, 2016.

price_india_burning_coal_010.jpg

A young boy holds his baby brother on the edge of the Alkusha mine at Ganshadih.

A young boy holds his baby brother on the edge of the Alkusha mine at Ganshadih. Image by Larry C. Price. India, 2016.

price_india_burning_coal_011.jpg

Chilren race past hot fumes at Ganshadih.

Children race past hot fumes at Ganshadih. Image by Larry C. Price. India, 2016.

price_india_burning_coal_012.jpg

Hot steam and fumes spew from cracks in the ground at Ganshadih.

Hot steam and fumes spew from cracks in the ground at Ganshadih. Image by Larry C. Price. India, 2016.

price_india_burning_coal_013.jpg

Coal scavengers race past cracks in the earth that emit flames and toxic fumes near Ganshadih.

Coal scavengers race past cracks in the earth that emit flames and toxic fumes near Ganshadih. Image by Larry C. Price. India, 2016.

price_india_burning_coal_014.jpg

Women and young girls carry scavenged coal from the bottom of the Alkusha Coalfield.

Women and young girls carry scavenged coal from the bottom of the Alkusha Coalfield. Image by Larry C. Price. India, 2016.

price_india_burning_coal_015.jpg

A young girl carries scavenged coal from the bottom of the Alkusha Coalfield.

A young girl carries scavenged coal from the bottom of the Alkusha Coalfield. Image by Larry C. Price. India, 2016.

price_india_burning_coal_017.jpg

A girl carries her sister though burning coal fires at Ganshadih.

A girl carries her sister through smoke from burning coal fires at Ganshadih. Image by Larry C. Price. India, 2016.

price_india_burning_coal_018.jpg

A mother leads her daughter though smoke from burning coal fires at Ganshadih.

A mother leads her daughter though smoke from burning coal fires at Ganshadih. Image by Larry C. Price. India, 2016.

price_india_burning_coal_019.jpg

Villagers at Ganshadih load sacks of coal on a bicycle for transport to a local market.

Villagers at Ganshadih load sacks of coal onto a bicycle for transport to a local market. Image by Larry C. Price. India, 2016.

price_india_burning_coal_020.jpg

Villagers at Ganshadih load sacks of coal for transport to a local market.

Villagers at Ganshadih load sacks of coal for transport to a local market. Image by Larry C. Price. India, 2016.

price_india_burning_coal_021.jpg

Smoke from underground coal fires release heat and toxic fumes at Ganshadih.

Smoke from underground coal fires release heat and toxic fumes at Ganshadih. Image by Larry C. Price. India, 2016.

price_india_burning_coal_022.jpg

Coal scavengers at Ganshadih work largely unprotected.

Coal scavengers at Ganshadih are largely unprotected while they work. Image by Larry C. Price. India, 2016.

price_india_burning_coal_024.jpg

Coal scavengers at Ganshadih work largely unprotected.

Coal scavengers at Ganshadih are largely unprotected while they work. Image by Larry C. Price. India, 2016.

price_india_burning_coal_025.jpg

A young girl picks through a coal bed at the Alkusha mine.

A young girl picks through a coal bed at the Alkusha mine. Image by Larry C. Price. India, 2016.

price_india_burning_coal_026.jpg

A young girl scavenges coal at the Alkusha mine.

A young girl scavenges coal at the Alkusha mine. Image by Larry C. Price. India, 2016.

price_india_burning_coal_016.jpg

Women and young girls carry scavenged coal from the bottom of the Alkusha Coalfield. Image by Larry C. Price. India, 2016.

Women and young girls carry scavenged coal from the bottom of the Alkusha Coalfield. Image by Larry C. Price. India, 2016.

price_india_burning_coal_005.jpg

Women carry scavenged coal from the bottom of the Alkusha Coalfield. Image by Larry C. Price. India, 2016.

Women carry scavenged coal from the bottom of the Alkusha Coalfield. Image by Larry C. Price. India, 2016.

Long before the sun rose, the women and girls of Ganshadih began the first of countless treks down a steep and narrow switchback into the open pit mine to scavenge chunks of coal, which they carried back to the surface in baskets balanced atop their heads. It was too dark to photograph when I arrived at the Jharia Coalfield at 4:15 a.m., but already they were at work. So, too, were the heavy machines that bit into the sides of the mine.

The scavengers moved gracefully, purposefully, between and around shovels and loaders that could easily crush them, their ghostly figures illuminated every now and then by headlight beams. The machinery operators know to watch out for the people. This dance has been going on a long time.

The women stepped carefully with practiced strides to avoid the fissures that run like fingers through the scarred and blackened ground. In the bright light of day, heat waves shimmering above the cracks were the only warning of the danger beneath. In the dark, though, the fissures were terrifyingly apparent, glowing yellow and orange with the flames of the fire burning deep in the earth.

The fire has been burning for a hundred years. To be more precise, dozens of fires are burning throughout the Jharia Coalfields, a half-hour drive southwest of Dhanbad in India’s Jharkhand state. Dhanbad is the region’s largest city and one of India’s most important coal trading centers. The region’s vast coalfields spread across about 108 square miles and are India's main source of the prized bituminous coal used to fire steel mill blast furnaces.

In the early 1970s, authorities documented 77 fires in the massive coalfield operated by the state-controlled Coal India and its subsidiary, Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL). In the 40 years since, several projects have been undertaken to control and extinguish the fires and relocate entire villages with only limited success. The Hindu newspaper reported in 2015 that BCCL estimated that the coal fires had destroyed 37 million metric tons of coal and continued to prevent the company from mining another 2 billion metric tons worth an estimated $220 billion.

Beyond the economics and lost coal, the fires have taken a horrific toll on both the environment and the people who live perilously close to the ever-widening mines. The ground is a charred wasteland, too hot and poisonous for anything to grow. Noxious fumes and greenhouse gases rise from the fissures; the stench of burning sulfur hangs in the air. People complain of respiratory problems, skin diseases, and other ailments. Fissures open without warning to swallow entire houses, sometimes, horrifically, with their residents still inside.

In May 2016, the Indian news magazine Tehelka, lamenting the lack of progress on resettlement plans, reported that 11 villages around the Jharia coalfields have been destroyed over the years. By the news magazine's estimate, more than 54,000 families still live in the dangerous fire zones and subsistence areas.

The tiny village of Ganshadih sits on the edge of the Alkusha mine in the BCCL complex. When I visited in February, about 50 people lived in a cluster of brightly painted houses, the closest homes no more than 100 yards from the edge of the mine. The women and the girls did most of the work—carrying the coal, dumping the coal into large piles, and burning those piles to make charcoal, which they bagged and sold in the local markets. Small children sat before piles of coal and used brass hammers to break large pieces into smaller ones. Even in the midst of all this filth—their hands and feet were black with coal dust—the women and girls were dressed beautifully in colorful saris and jewelry. They laughed, chatted, and sang as they climbed the switchbacks, balancing baskets that weighed 40 pounds or more.

I saw only one man carrying coal with the women and a few teenage boys and men tending the fires, though there were many men just hanging around the village. Mostly, the women and girls did the heavy lifting.

The 100th anniversary of the first coal fire at the Jharia field brought a flurry of press coverage for the plight of the residents near the mines and an announcement from India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015 of new and more aggressive plans to combat the fires and relocate up to 100,000 people near the mines. For the people who live above the inferno, though, change is slow to come.

Editor's note: We corrected the original reference to Jharkhand as a province to the state.

Word document: 
AttachmentSize
File price_india_coal_fire_final.docx158.34 KB