What has been the problem in Jharia over the years?
Unsafe and illegal mining has led to fires in coal deposits under the surface of the Jharia coalfields in Jharkhand’s Dhanbad district, which span over 160 square kilometres. They now pose a risk to the population living on the surface, could lead to cave-ins and gas spills and are a threat to rail transport. While the first subterranean blaze was noticed in 1916 and various reports and studies have sounded the alarm over the years, authorities began seeking a comprehensive solution only in the early 2000s. Officials maintain that Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL), a subsidiary of Coal India Limited, inherited a troubled legacy when the mines were nationalised in the early 1970s. Most of the affected mines date back before Independence and nationalisation (private owners ran collieries earlier), when the thrust was on production and profit, with little regard for safety.
What is the extent of the problem?
When the coal mines were nationalised in 1971, at least 70 mining areas within Jharia were on fire. The problem later spread to seven more mining zones. The number of affected areas has reduced to about 67, as around 10 fires have been extinguished using different methods. Rail routes, including the key Dhanbad-Chandrapura line that is currently in focus, fall in the affected region. One arterial route, Dhanbad-Patherdih line, was closed down in 2007. The Adra (West Bengal)-Gomoh line is functional, but on a slightly diverted route.
What is being done now?
The principal secretary to the Prime Minister held a meeting of the stakeholders on May 22 and sought time-bound action on shifting out arterial railway lines through Jharia, and rehabilitation. This come amid concerns about land around the tracks caving in. On May 30, Jharkhand chief secretary Rajbala Verma visited the affected area and the rehabilitation colony. The Jharia Rehabilitation and Development Authority (JRDA, formed by the Centre) has now been asked to look into the possibility of putting prefabricated structures at the resettlement site to increase the number of houses as quickly as possible. The resettlement colony will soon have a police outpost, an anganwadi centre, a health centre and potable drinking water, which residents who have been provided housing there have been complaining about. The railways has been asked to draw up its diversion plan for the Dhanbad-Chandrapura line.
Why is the Dhanbad-Chandrapura line important?
Unlike a couple of the other affected rail lines, the nearly 41-km Dhanbad-Chandrapura line is used by 37 pairs of daily train services, which include express, mail and passenger trains. Some of the important trains include the Howrah-Ranchi Shatabdi Express, Patna-Ranchi Janshatabdi Express, Dhanbad-Patna Pataliputra Express, Hatia-Gorakhpur Maurya Express, Dhanbad-Alappuzha Express, Garib Rath Express and Howrah-Jabalpur Shaktipunj Express. Besides, there are goods train that carry excavated coal from the mines.
If the rail line is shut, it could lead to revenue losses close to Rs 2,500 crore. Besides, creating a new diversion alone is expected to cost around Rs 3,000 crore. So far, authorities have identified Sijua, Sendra-Bansjora and Angarpathra areas as being particularly vulnerable to fires. While there is no official word on how close the fire has got to the railway track, it is more or less clear that shifting the rail line is the only long-term option authorities are looking at.
What are the problems in shifting the lines? Are there alternatives?
Railway officials cite a number of problems associated with the task of closing down the Dhanbad-Chandrapura line. There is pressure from the local population, several thousand of whom depend on the line, not to close down the line. A completely new line would mean chalking out a fresh route; ensuring alignment with the existing network; acquiring land; setting up rail tracks and station infrastructure. Even if all factors fall in place, the whole process would take at least three to four years. Officials are mulling the possibility of keeping the track alive by mitigating the fire-related circumstances at the three most vulnerable points (Sijua, Sendra-Bansjora and Angarpathra). They have already, with the help of CIMFR (Central Institute of Mining and Fuel Research), begun implementing such measures along the track. These include pushing nitrogen foam mixed with water through boreholes in the affected mines; filling up of cavities with sand and mud to cut-off oxygen supply and sprinkling water to lower temperatures.
Is there any assessment on just how much time the authorities have at hand to prevent a possible disaster on the tracks?
No. The Railways was told in 2005 that the Dhanbad-Chandrapura line has become dangerous for rail movement. In the 12 years since, neither mining nor rail traffic has stopped, say railway officials. There has, however, been no caving in of the rail track so far.
The Railways and other agencies tasked with tackling the fires say that until a new line comes up, fire-mitigating measures could help them buy time. But with plans still not firmed up, there is no certainty on how long it will take to unfold.
How have earlier rehabilitation efforts panned out over the years?
After going through revisions in 2004 and 2006, the last master plan for rehabilitation was drawn up in 2008. The process was expected to be completed within 10 to 12 years. In 2017, however, rehabilitation hasn’t even reached the halfway mark.
The efforts are being undertaken in a multi-agency environment. Apart from the Rail India Technical and Economic Service, other agencies involved are the Directorate General of Mines Safety, CIMFR, Central Mine Planning and Design Institute, Railways, BCCL, JRDA (with the divisional commissioner as its chairman) and the district administration.
JRDA officials say that their target is to construct 10,000 houses at the Belgarhia resettlement colony, seven km from the railway station and under the Balliapur police station. So far, 4,000 houses have been constructed and only 2,110 families have been shifted in the last six years.
Also, JRDA is supposed to identify and shift only non-BCCL residents (including encroachers), while the BCCL is supposed to take care of its employees. BCCL claims it will have no problem shifting its employees, although it employs hundreds in the affected areas.
How well have the various agencies coordinated among themselves?
With difficulty, if at all. For instance, railway officials say that the Dhanbad-Patherdih line was handed over to BCCL in 2007 for rehabilitation and restoration by 2022. The idea was to remove the tracks and other utilities and extract the remaining coal in the area and then restore the earth, on which the rail line could be laid again and services resumed. So far, officials say, nothing much has happened on ground and only five years remain of the stipulated period.
BCCL officials say it is up to the JRDA to move the population from the affected areas. JRDA officials say they have been trying, but several issues have cropped up. Ideally, the vacated areas, including houses, need to be demolished by BCCL. However, there have been cases where the rehabilitated people have returned to their old houses.
What is the situation on the ground?
Though rail movement has not been affected so far, the actual situation due to the underground fire was underlined by an incident that took place in the Phularibad area of Jharia on May 24. A father and son, Babloo Ansari and Rahim, fell into a pit that had opened up just outside their garage, bellowing carbon monoxide.
The NDRF team could not get down into the pit with temperatures remaining in the high 80s and 90s. Cutting trenches around the hole did not help either. Finally, they were closed when the bodies of the two could not be retrieved in three days. The family has left the area fearing that others too would die.
Following the incident, JRDA has allotted houses to 27 families, including the victims’ family, in Belgaria. Two days after the incident, four other persons fell unconscious in another area of Jharia when the land subsided and created a cavity, emanating poisonous gases.