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.