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Our house is always very hot and smoke continuously billows out from under the floor,” says Aduri Devi, in her 70s, of Nadiper Basti. For the past five years, she and her family of seven have been living under a tree outside their basti (settlement).

Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL), the chief coke-producing company in the region, adopted opencast and slaughter mining methods where only top-of-the-mine coal is extracted. This involves digging massive pits to procure coal. Though a cheap and efficient method, it causes fires in the abandoned mines that are exposed to the atmosphere and are susceptible to spontaneous combustion. These fires cost the company 37 million tonnes of coking coal and increased pollution levels in the region.

The local administration and BCCL have declared Jharia a danger zone, and have asked residents to leave the area. So far, 40 bastis in the collieries are in the process of being evacuated. Under a pilot project to resettle the people, BCCL, in collaboration with the state government, has spent र610 million to construct houses for 9,000 families in Jharia. The Union government has also sanctioned र75 billion for the rehabilitation of the 80,000 families threatened by mine fires.

The people, though, refuse to leave. “Jharia is the land of our ancestors. It is difficult for us to move to another place. BCCL has been promising us jobs for over 20 years, but no one from Jharia has been employed yet. How can we trust these same people to provide us homes outside Jharia?” asks Prakash Narayan Bagchi, secretary, Jharia Bachao Samiti, a committee formed by the people of Jharia to fight against the eviction orders. “For over two decades, the state government has been promising us land. Their actual aim is to evict people from their own land, and extract even greater amounts of coal from the region,” says Gour Kumbhakar, now in his 60s, a resident of Nadiper Basti area.

H Chakravarty, superintendent, engineering cell of environment department, BCCL, attempts to clear the air: “We are asking them to move due to the health hazards that the region presents, and are also running awareness camps on this.”

Meanwhile, people attempt to survive in the fire zone. Guriya, 9, Kumara basti has been suffering from high fever for the last three months. “When she discontinues her medicine, she falls sick again,” says Swiju Devi, 23, her mother. A few months back, Guriya suffered from chronic breathing problems.

“Most of my patients suffer from tuberculosis, chronic lung disease, bronchial asthma and pneumoconiosis. About 80 to 85% of them are suffering from breathing difficulties,” says Dr Rajiv Agarwaal, a local doctor. Earlier, he says, the majority of his patients were in the 30-35 age group. Now they are between 20 to 25 years of age. “Poisonous emissions from the blazing coal mines are getting mixed with the residents’ haemoglobin,” he feels.

Mira, 27, who stays at the old Jharia station basti, has already lost two children to malnutrition. Now pregnant, she suffers from tuberculosis and breathing problems. “Even though I eat adequately and have medicines, the doctor says I am anaemic. My husband is a rickshaw puller, so this is all I can afford,” she says, adding, “I think am going to die, like my mother and my friend, of tuberculosis.”

The primary health centres near the collieries which are supposed to provide free treatment to the coal mine-affected population, do not have enough medicines, and the people are forced to go to expensive private doctors for treatment. If they do not have money for the doctor, they just ask the pharmacist to prescribe medicines.

“In the last five years, the demand for medicines has increased. Sometimes, people approach us for treatment and we know that if we do not give them medicines, they will die,” says Swaroop Mondol of Ranchi Medical Store, which set up shop about 20 years ago.

“Since 1980, we have been working in these areas, planting 25 trees like teak, acacia and neem in the affected areas,” says Chakraborty. Areas such as Jogta, Gopalichak, Sandra Bansjhora, where coal fires had been blazing since the early 1960s, are now green.

Meanwhile, the state government has set up a Jharia Rehabilitation and Development Authority to resettle affected families. But all these efforts will come to naught unless the government and BCCL can convince the residents of Jharia that they must step off the fire zone.

Kalpana Pradhan

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