Living Amid the Fires -- In Bokapahari, India, thousands of people live over an inferno of raging coal fires, earning roughly $2 a day selling coal they pilfered from a government mine. The government has spent millions to build them new apartments, but so far the residents are staying put. See related story
Miners returned home after a long day of working in the coal mines in the village of Bokapahari, India.
Coal fires rage just below the surface of the ground, making it too hot to walk barefoot. Noxious gases spew from fissures in and around houses.
Children dug out coal from a mine on a recent day. The central government has spent $5 million to build 2,400 new apartments to house residents of Bokapahari. But residents say they have no way of earning a living if they move eight miles away to the new complex.
What’s more, residents complain that the new apartments, nine- by 11-foot rooms with an adjoining bathroom and kitchen, are too small to fit families that often include six to 10 people. At left, residents dug out coal from the mines.
The government has made revitalizing rural India a priority. It has poured billions of dollars into economic-development and jobs programs to improve the grim circumstances of hundreds of millions of its citizens. But many of the government’s more ambitious plans to help its most vulnerable citizens are failing because they are poorly conceived and executed. India continues to struggle in helping individuals at the bottom of the heap. Right, Jalo Bhuia, who works in the Jharia mines.
Residents carried baskets of coal back to their village. Bharat Coking Coal officials say the coal pickers are trespassing and endangering their lives.
The Bokapahari coal pickers say the real reason the government wants to move them is so that it can mine the coal below where they currently live. At left, residents talked about problems with dust and pollution in Kujama Basti, a village a few miles away from Bokapahari.
Government officials insist safety is their first concern, even as they acknowledge that they do plan to mine the million tons of coal under Bokapahari.
People gathered to distribute a recent day’s wage. Jharia and the nearby village of Bokapahari lie in the 450-square-kilometer, turtle-shaped coalfield that is one of the largest coal reserves in India.
Today, more than 70% of India’s power supply is derived from coal. Faced with a desperate shortage of power to fuel its factories and produce electricity for its growing cities, the government is trying to increase its coal production.
The Indian government began to move villagers from the danger zones after a series of accidents in which people, houses and sections of roadway suddenly disappeared under the earth. In 1996, several houses in the area collapsed into the ground within two hours.
By 1999, local and national government officials had developed a plan to move the people, roads and railway lines endangered by the fires. At left, a villager sat on coal.
It wasn’t until 2007 that construction began on the first apartment complex for the villagers. The 2,400 apartments ready a year ago were the first of five townships planned as resettlement areas. Last year, the federal government appropriated nearly $2 billion for moving the 97,000 families who live on the edges of the blazing mines. Railway lines and roads are to be shifted, and the fires in the area extinguished once and for all. Govinda Bhuia, left, and Arbeen Bhuia, right, work in the Jharia mines.
Ajay Singh, who, as managing director of the Jharia Rehabilitation and Development Authority is in charge of the relocation plan, says trying to relocate the villagers is the toughest job he’s had in his 15-year career as an Indian administration officer.
Sanjit Das | Panos for The Wall Street Journal