Scavenging to survive in India's belt of fire

Associated Press
In this Thursday, Jan. 6, 2011 photo, stray dogs stand on the parched and burnt earth where underground coal fires are burning in the village of Bokapahari in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand where a community of coal scavengers live and work. (AP Photo/Kevin Frayer)
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The villagers set out from this shattered hamlet long before dawn, walking without flashlights on trails they can navigate without looking.

They pass small mountains of mining slag that, in the darkness, are just blurry silhouettes. They weave barefoot through brush. When the trail reaches a dirt road, they descend into the open pit of a coal mine. Then, as the night sky starts turning to gray, they begin hacking coal from an exposed black seam.

A few hours later the scavengers return to their villages, their baskets filled with stolen coal.

They return to visions of the apocalypse.

They come back to villages where smoke pours from fissures in the earth, where flames from underground fires lick at trails, where oily fumes leave visitors gagging. In places, Bokapahari looks like nearly every other village around here — cramped stone houses plastered with mud, children playing in dirt roads, tangled electricity lines — until, off at the edge of town, the earth is buckled and warped, riven by cracks and scorched by burn marks.

Beneath the scavengers' villages are dozens of underground coal fires, one dating to 1918. Above the fires are thousands of people living at the ragged edge of existence.

This is home.

"There's no beauty here," said Mahesh Prasad Verma, 40, who has spent his life on the fringes of the thriving but deeply troubled coal city of Jharia, in the remote eastern state of Jharkhand. "Everywhere there is just mines and fire, smoke and dust."

Behind that smoke, though, the dozen or so villages where fires have erupted into the open reveal a complex portrait of modern Indian life. There is economic opportunity, government incompetence and environmental afflictions. There are nearly 700 families who have reluctantly moved to an isolated resettlement project, and 54,000 more families across Jharia who officials say need to move.

There are thousands of people who desperately fear losing their grip on the bottom rungs of India's economic ladder.

"The government officials visit us and say we have to leave, because of the fire," said Verma. "But where could we go? Where would we live?"

And, most important: What would he do to survive?

"We scavenge coal and we sell it," said Verma, a seventh-grade dropout, standing amid the smoke of a half-dozen bonfires lit to reduce raw coal to sellable chunks. "That's all we do here."

India is increasingly a land of opportunity, a country of 1.2 billion where galloping economic growth created 40,000 new millionaires just in 2009. There's an exploding middle class buying up flat-screen TVs and sending their children to English-language private schools.

If much of the new money is concentrated in a handful of cities, with their clusters of software engineers and real estate developers, hints of wealth have reached deep into India, even to Jharia, a city of 500,000 in the heart of the country's coal belt.

In a country ravenous for energy, and largely dependent on coal, the city has boomed. Today, shoppers in Jharia's dusty, potholed streets can buy Whirlpool washing machines and Sony televisions. They can shop for used Hondas at the glass-fronted motorcycle dealership. It's an ugly city beset by troubles, but it still offers far more opportunities than it once did.

Bokapahari, and its grim neighboring villages, are the dark reflection of India's new world. Here the only opportunities lie in scavenged coal.

Because as one segment of Indian society has been lifted into the middle class, hundreds of millions of others have been left behind, widening an ever-expanding chasm between rich and poor.

If the Indian government hails the country as a modern economic powerhouse, many statistics tell a different story: 20 percent of all children are malnourished; rural unemployment is nearly 30 percent and more than a third of the population lives on less than $1 per day.

In places like Bokapahari, they say, at least they earn more than that. They are villages where misery meets opportunity, and where what looks like hell to an outsider looks like survival to the residents.

Not that anyone gets misty-eyed about it.

The villages are a mixture of the everyday and the surreal, where old men can gossip on a front step while, barely 30 feet away, smoke spews from dozens of crevices, some large enough to swallow a child. When the light is right, foot-high blue flames can be seen spurting from many cracks.

Everyone tells stories about collapsing houses, about the sleeping man who disappeared when a sinkhole opened beneath his bed.

"Slowly and slowly the fire is crawling under them," T.N. Singh, a retired scientist with the Central Mining Research Institute, said of the villagers. "And one day, the fire will consume them."

Already, life is ferociously difficult. Alcoholism is rampant and up to 40 percent of some villages have asthma. One local doctor has seen six tuberculosis deaths in just the past six months.

"I know this is a terrible place," said M.G. Martin, 26, a thick tarry smell hanging in the air around him. A crack splits one wall of his shack, accidentally caused by laborers when they destroyed his neighbor's home when that family agreed to be resettled. Once anyone leaves, officials want no one moving back.

"This is where we earn our living, and I can't just leave," he said.

Earning that living is dangerous, filthy and illegal. Scavengers are buried in landslides, fall from cliffs and endure beatings by miners. They inhale endless coal dust. They age with frightening speed.

But it also brings them $2-$4 for a few hours of work, more than the $1 or so they would earn as day laborers. The work has sustained generations of families, and induced migrants from poorer parts of the country to move here. The money is enough, villagers say, to pay off powerful people who make sure the mines' guards don't interfere.

So there are scavengers putting their children through school, buying televisions and saving up for motorcycles. One young woman says she's scavenging to pay for college.

It's a world that no one leaves easily. Offers of free government apartments seldom lure villagers away until the fires press right against their homes, and an official is waiting with a moving truck and an envelope holding a 10,000-rupee ($215) resettlement bonus.

The head of the Jharia Rehabilitation Development Authority, the government body trying to shift thousands of families from the nearly 600 locations in and around Jharia left unsafe by underground fires and illegal mining, said more people are actually moving into the danger zone. They come "for earning their livelihood, and nothing else," said Gopalji, who uses only one name.

In many of those 600 sites, it's difficult to see the danger. The trouble is subterranean, with fires and unstable subsoil hidden deep underground, scattered across Jharia and the surrounding area. But every few years the ground cracks open and fears spread again. One 1996 sinkhole damaged 150 houses in the city, others swallowed entire houses.

In Bokapahari, though, the trouble is obvious. There are not many villages like it, perhaps a dozen, but they are home to thousands of people, nearly all of whom survive by scavenging. All are situated along the area's many open pit mines.

Singh estimates there are at least 70 fires around Jharia. Some began with "contact fires," such as when burning garbage ignites an exposed coal seam, and some from cooking fires lit inside the mines.

Unlike the most famous underground coal fire in the United States — in Centralia, Pennsylvania, where a blaze has burned since 1962, forcing the government to resettle nearly the entire town — Singh said many of Jharia's fires are nurtured by continued mining, which opens up cracks that feed oxygen to the flames.

At least some fires, he said, could be extinguished by simply excavating on both sides of the burn.

That, however, would take cooperation between Indian authorities and the state-owned company that owns the mines. When they have worked together, as they briefly did in the 1970s, they managed to extinguish five of the 21 fires then burning, he said. Since then, many more have erupted.

Eventually, though, the government decided it had to take dramatic action, and in 1990 officials began making plans. The current one calls for moving about 350,000 people.

It took officials years to find a building site — 11 kilometers (7 miles) from town, far from public transportation — and years more to complete the first phase of construction. After $24 million in spending, 662 families have moved into Belgarhia, a complex of drab 4-story buildings set amid empty fields.

But the other reality: More than 1,600 apartments there are empty. Even the poorest residents do not move easily.

Gopalji, the resettlement bureaucrat, is still shocked by that.

"We've given them each and every amenity, minus a job," he said.

But a job is what it's all about.

At first, many new residents are ecstatic. While the apartments are minuscule and some are already crumbling from shoddy construction, they have running water, concrete floors and indoor toilets — unknown luxuries in the villages.

"I lived in a mud house, a hut, and when I saw this I was thrilled," said Tara Devi, a 32-year-old who looks at least a decade older, gesturing around her 27-square-meter (290-square-foot) apartment.

Until moving to Belgarhia in December, she and her husband had lived in Ghanuawadih, another village where underground fires have burst through the ground. They earned about $4 a day there scavenging coal. It wasn't a good life, but it was enough to send their two children to school, to buy a TV.

Now, she says she never should have left.

There's no work, she says, a refrain heard across Belgarhia. Their savings are running out. A couple of times a week, her husband makes the journey back to the coal mines, two hours each way.

She would move back if she could. But as the family left, laborers with hammers and iron bars were waiting to smash it down.

Today, nothing of it remains but a few bricks, scattered in a village that stinks of burning coal.

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