How rich Jharkhand is

The soil, the water and the air is polluted, and that in an area that was once rich in forests. With the rapidly increasing economic growth of India, the need for energy and thus also the hunger for the dirty and supposedly cheap raw material coal is increasing. The Jharia coal field - named after the city and region of the same name - is the largest coal mining area in India, and also the area with the largest number of coal seam fires. These fires are one of the biggest causes of pollution not only locally, but also globally. Because coal fires blow huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the air. In India alone it is around 1.4 billion tons per year. India is now the fourth largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world.

The story of Jharia is a story of how greed, self-interest and hunger for power prevail and lead to one of the mineral-rich areas of India remaining economically underdeveloped. Mining marginalizes the poor and exacerbates social inequality in the name of economic development that mostly only benefits metropolises like Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai.

The Jharia coal fields were opened in 1896 put into operation and nationalized in 1971. Since then, the state-owned BCCL (Bharat Coking Coal Limited) has been its operator. This makes it one of the largest deposits in all of Asia. BCCL mainly operates opencast mines. Mostly illegal as in most cases there is no permit. Open pit mining is more profitable than underground mining. Labor productivity and the amount of coal extracted are significantly higher than in underground mining and generate fewer costs. In Jharia the coal is mined in the villages, next to the houses, in the middle of the living space of the population. Coal is even mined on streets, on railroad tracks, even at the train station, which is no longer there. The CEO of Indian Railways has even filed a criminal complaint against BCCL. Ashok Agarwal from the organization “Jharia Coalfield Bachao Samiti” (Save Jharia Coalfield Committee), an organization that campaigns against the BCCL's expulsion policy, explains: “Unfortunately, the Indian Railways belong to the Indian government, they are a state railway, just like the coal mines are state. So practically everything belongs to the Indian government and the matter has been shelved. "

Actually, areas in which the extraction is completed should be filled with sand and water so that the soil can be used again. For reasons of cost, however, this does not happen. Among other things, this leads to the fact that the coal seams, i.e. the deposits of coal that run parallel to the rock stratification, come into contact with oxygen and catch fire. India has the largest number of coal seam fires in the world. According to BCCL estimates, there are 67 fires in Jharia alone.

The people here live dangerously: The coal seams have been burning for over 100 years. The sources of fire eat their way deep into the earth, break in shafts and let poisonous fumes gush out of the cracks in the floor. Ashok Agarwal: “The people of Jharia suffer from this. The coal seam fires are deliberately not put out by the company. The mines are full of water. If this water is properly directed, the fires could be put out quickly. That only happens if the fires are not in the interests of BCCL. ”Unfortunately, most coal seam fires are in the interests of the mine operator. Agarwal: “The BCCL absolutely wants to operate opencast mines. To do this, she needs as much land as possible. And the more land catches fire, the more land is classified as dangerous. ”Then the residents could be evicted and society would get more and more uninhabitable land to mine coal.

More than 1,000 million tons of coal are stored under Jharia. And the open-cast mining areas are densely populated. 40% of the population live on the burning, fire-breathing land. Lands sink, houses collapse. The company's economic interests and influence are too strong for coal mining to continue. In addition, the mafia has the area around Jharia firmly in hand and earns a lot of money through blackmail, bribery and other criminal activities.

“It's always hot in our house. Smoke is constantly rising from the floor, ”complains a resident of Bokalpari, a small village surrounded by coal seam fires. The smoke and vapors contain toxins, including carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, but also soot, methane and arsenic.

The damage to health is enormous. Lung and skin diseases, cancer and stomach ailments are just some of the diseases that the people of Jharia struggle with. Ashok Agarwal: “Because of the massive air pollution here, practically everyone who lives in the vicinity of Jharia has lung problems. Bronchitis, lung cancer, or asthma. The average age of the inhabitants of this region has meanwhile fallen very, very sharply. "

What if someone gets sick? The government has its own hospitals. However, these hospitals are reserved for BCCL employees. Ashok Agarwal: “The poor people have to pay for their own medical care when they get sick. But most of them don't have enough money for that. That's why they don't even go to the hospital. "

Instead of doing something against the fires, one of the world's largest resettlement plans is to be implemented, the Jharia Action Plan (JAP). The people of the burning areas are to be relocated to Belgaria, an area eight kilometers away in the middle of the forest. There is no school, no medical care, no shops and, perhaps worst of all, no jobs. Whole families, sometimes even ten people, have to be accommodated in the newly built one-room apartments. Ashok Agarwal: “People have practically been forced to move there. They have never been asked whether they like this place or not. The BCCL just decided to give them a tiny room with a bathroom and kitchen. "

The resettled people have been promised 10,000 rupees (the equivalent of 145?) Plus 250 days of work. But most of them don't get anything. That the government will provide post offices, hospitals, shopping malls, schools, electricity and water has remained a mere promise. So many choose to stay in Jharia. On the fire. Despite the fires. Despite the eternal gray veil that covers the city. Despite the air pollution that makes breathing almost impossible on bad days. And despite the coal dust that covers the body like a second skin.

Isabell Zipfel is a freelance photographer. She grew up in Rome, now lives in Berlin and works for international magazines.