IN THE 101st year since the first underground fire was reported in Jharkhand’s Jharia Coalfields, the government is finally moving on a fast track to shift all major public utility assets — mainly the arterial railway tracks and all train operations — from areas around the coalfield. A technical report by the Director General of Mining Safety, and subsequent observations by multi-disciplinary expert panels, has stated that land around the coalfield has finally started caving in. Public utility assets, notably the age-old railway tracks, may no longer be safe, the experts point out.
Jharia is one of India’s biggest and most productive coalfields and is estimated to have nearly 80 underground fires in the years since 1916. This is seen as the first serious effort by the Central government to solve the 100-year-old problem by dousing the flames and restoring the land. On May 22, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister Nripendra Mishra chaired a meeting of officers from Coal, Railways, Geological Survey of India, Jharkhand government, NITI Aayog and other departments to discuss a series of action required for a “master plan” to divert the double line, parts of which coincides with the Grand Chord of the Howrah-Delhi main line — India’s busiest railway corridor.
The move being top priority, three Railway Board members, including the Board Chairman, took part in the meeting. Other ministries had their secretaries and relevant joint secretaries present, while Chief Secretary Rajbala Verma represented Jharkhand with other state officers. According to sources, Indian Railways has in-principle agreed that given the scenario presented by the government’s report, it would not prefer to operate passenger trains on the stretch, especially on the 41-km section between Chandrapura and Dhanbad (in Jharkhand). Diverting this section will be the first priority, according to officials privy to the discussions.
The plan, these officials said, is to close the existing line and operate a diverted route during the time it takes to reclaim the land. The tracks would then be restored. Sources said a new diverted double-line of 134 km is being planned around the coalfields, for which Jharkhand government will have to identify land. The total diversion project is estimated to cost approximately Rs 3,000 crore, but given the Railways’ inability to amass that funds for the project, alternative options are being explored, a source said.
One of the options is to tap into mining cess levied by the Jharia Mines Board to get Rs 1,200 crore and have the busy 41-km route diverted on priority, an official who attended the meeting told The Indian Express. The entire process to shift, and then restore, the Dhanbad-Chandrapura section may take two years, officials said. They said the 41-km cannot wait, as daily commuter trains and other long-distance services will stand affected. Busy passenger stretches – such as Dhanbad to Jharkhand’s capital Ranchi and Darbhanga in Bihar – will be impacted by the shutdown and diversion work, they said.
There are 37 pairs of daily train services operating on the stretch at present. This stretch being a source of huge income for the Railways, relocating the tracks is expected to result in massive loss of revenues – internally, the amount of estimated losses from freight and passenger trains is learnt to have been pegged at Rs 2,500 crore.
According to sources, the Railways is trying to insert certain clauses in the arrangement – among others, compensation of the loss of revenue calculated on a per-day basis if there is a delay in restoring the existing tracks beyond the deadline.
Multiple committees and expert groups have advised the governments of the day on ways to douse the underground fires since nationalisation of mines began in 1971, but nothing has worked, even as the tracks — both the Grand Chord and the branch lines — function normally, and regular passengers on the Dghanbad route have got used to smoke coming out of the coal pits over the years.
According to sources, an expert group nominated by the PMO will visit the area and examine the Railways’s preparedness assets before meeting again in the first week of June with more concrete actionable points.