Indian village fears being swallowed by underground coal fires – by Mark Magnier (Los Angeles Times/Toronto Star – August 18, 2012)

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JHARIA, India — For nearly a century now, fires have burned beneath the ground where Mohammad Riyaz Ansari stands. At night, ghostly blue flares shoot from glowing rocks, like a terrible hell on Earth.

The 55-year-old mechanic and his neighbours here, deep in eastern India’s coal country, live above underground coal fires that are eating away at their land, India’s precious natural resources and, say some, government credibility.

As the ground subsides, thousands of houses, including Ansari’s, have sagged, collapsed or fallen into chasms over the years, including 250 destroyed over two hours in 1995.

In this eerie landscape — the plumes of flame igniting periodically as combustible gas escapes from the subterranean fires — locals speak of neighbours swallowed in their sleep. In 2006, for instance, 14-year-old Mira Kumari vanished while cooking when her house fell 15 metres underground. Her body was never recovered.

There may be many others. Activists say dozens of disappearances each year go unreported, especially those involving poor people stealing coal. “Their relatives know if they go to the police, they’ll file a case against them,” said Ashok Agarwal, head of the Save Jharia Coalfield Committee, a civic group.

Those who live in the area accuse India’s state coal company of letting the fires burn, hoping residents will leave so it can exploit the estimated $12 billion in high-grade coking coal, used in steel production, that sits below Jharia. Officials for the company, which mines the periphery of the town, say this isn’t true, but add that fully exploiting resources is needed to fuel India’s growing economy.

T.N. Singh, a retired mine safety expert with a government think tank who is now a critic, sees little likelihood that the long-standing crisis will be resolved any time soon.

“It’s not a tsunami or an explosion, so until it reaches your house, there’s little unity or urgency,” Singh said. “It’s slow death.”

About 180 families remain in the Bokapahadi neighborhood, a bleak community of grimy single-storey brick houses a few centimetres apart, interrupted by a web of makeshift electric poles. They say they are staying, despite the health and safety risks, in hopes of a reasonable relocation package. Widespread asthma, tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases, not to mention the mental stress, are the price they pay so affluent people in New Delhi and Mumbai can enjoy their energy-guzzling lives, they say.

“We’re here out of desperation,” said Abdul Jabber, 60, a traditional Muslim healer. “Hardly anyone here lives to 65. It should be 77.”

Jharia’s fires started around 1916, possibly because abandoned mines weren’t decommissioned properly. Since then, more than 70 major fires have consumed about 41 million tons of coking coal, worth billions of dollars.

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