Fire beneath your feet: the terrifying landscape of Jharia

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The Jharia coalfield in Jharkhand is India's most productive. As the only source of coking coal, essential for steel production, it is also perhaps the most important. A fire has been raging here since 1916. At first underground, it is now flaring up above ground, sometimes inside people's homes.

Fire beneath your feet: the terrifying landscape of Jharia

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Since coal was nationalised in 1971, mining has been the state's domain. Coal India Limited, controlled by the central government, is the world's largest mining company and India's fifth most valuable company.

Fire beneath your feet: the terrifying landscape of Jharia

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Two children play while their parents work. They are among the thousands who live on the mines and make a living scavenging coal. The plastic mesh over the child's head is a plaything. Coal dust, smoke and fire are the true threats.

Fire beneath your feet: the terrifying landscape of Jharia

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A temple wall cracks and caves in. Across the coalfields, the ground is collapsing. Destabilised by excessive blasting, extraction and fire, the land is doing all it can to swallow life.

Fire beneath your feet: the terrifying landscape of Jharia

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A scavenger walks along a cargo train that will take coal out of the mines. A high volume of coal is skimmed away during transportation. It is estimated that stolen coal amounts to 60 million metric tons a year, about 13 per cent of the total national output, worth about $1.5 billion or a little over one per cent of India's GDP.

Fire beneath your feet: the terrifying landscape of Jharia

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Scavengers work from 4 am to 9 am each morning, carrying off as much as they can before officials appear. They then cook and sell the coal on the black market. This can make them Rs 400 per day. Many choose this hazardous work because it is more lucrative than working as a waiter or a driver in a small town.

Fire beneath your feet: the terrifying landscape of Jharia

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Mining authorities have failed to control the fire. Some say the battle was lost to cut corners - the fire thrives in underground hollows created by mining that should have been filled up with sand. Instead, the fire is now eating away at Jharia's precious coal reserves.

Fire beneath your feet: the terrifying landscape of Jharia

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Men compete with machines to load coal on to outward-bound trucks. A day's work may pay Rs 200-300. Open-cast mining no longer really requires bodies, except to operate machines. But coal worker's unions don't want manual labour phased out. Coal may be dirty work, but it is still work.

Fire beneath your feet: the terrifying landscape of Jharia

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Though technically prohibited, blasts are routinely conducted close to dwellings. They are a part of life, filling the air with dust and sending a hail of stones into homes. This one occurs no more than 200 metres away from a village.

Fire beneath your feet: the terrifying landscape of Jharia

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Stray animals seeking heat in winter often fall prey to shaky ground near the fire. Needless to say, the expansion of mining has caused a near total wipeout of wildlife in the area.

Fire beneath your feet: the terrifying landscape of Jharia

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The vast quantities of dust thrown up by open cast mining causes acute air pollution, exposing Jharia's inhabitants to black lung disease (pneumoconiosis), chronic bronchitis, congestive heart failure and a reduction in life expectancy. Just breathing here is a deal with death.

Fire beneath your feet: the terrifying landscape of Jharia

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A mosque collapses due to subsidence. Twenty years ago, they say, 250 homes were swallowed up in just a few hours.

Fire beneath your feet: the terrifying landscape of Jharia

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Mana Devi, the widow of a former BCCL employee, took over his post when he died 16 years ago in a mine blast. The job is mostly clerical, assisting higher level officials at one of the mines. Most of the time, she just sits, waiting for time to pass.

Fire beneath your feet: the terrifying landscape of Jharia

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After coal is cooked overnight, scavengers break it into smaller pieces and pack it into sacks to be sold. Another photographer visiting Jharia once said the soles of his heavy boots had begun to melt as he walked around. Scavengers in Jharia routinely work barefoot, with bare hands.

Fire beneath your feet: the terrifying landscape of Jharia

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One of the ways authorities have tried to tackle fires is by moving them from one place to another, but this has failed to prevent their spread. Instead, they have just helped it extend its reach to more and more villages, causing a continued abandonment.

Fire beneath your feet: the terrifying landscape of Jharia

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In one of the villages in the coalfield, a woman thought to be possessed by a ghost is calmed by neighbours. An exorcist was later summoned to cure her. But the villages of Jharia continue to be haunted.

Fire beneath your feet: the terrifying landscape of Jharia

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Though coal is near-universally held to be essential to meet India's power needs, the power generated rarely reaches surrounding communities; its reach extends only as far as is necessary to facilitate mining. Those living in and around the mines often live in darkness.

Fire beneath your feet: the terrifying landscape of Jharia

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Consuming trees, animals, homes, temples, mosques and other signs of life, the fire has rendered several villages indistinguishable from the surrounding landscape. It is often quite hard to tell what is village and what is mine.

Fire beneath your feet: the terrifying landscape of Jharia

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After a spell of rain, steam and smoke from the coal fires renders the landscape surreal. Briefly, it is possible to become distracted from horror by beauty.

Fire beneath your feet: the terrifying landscape of Jharia

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A temporary labourer pauses during his work. Many coal pickers have plans for different lives for themselves or their children in the future - lives they will make possible by hard labour here, now.

Fire beneath your feet: the terrifying landscape of Jharia

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A girl tends to a pile of coal as it cooks. Picked by scavengers, coal is often cooked and packed by family members at home, filling villages with smoke and ash.

Fire beneath your feet: the terrifying landscape of Jharia

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The small percentage of villagers uninvolved in coal picking are unwilling to leave, despite having to suffer the consequences of living around the mines. They have lived in these villages for generations, as the mines grew around them. This is their home, and it has disappeared before their eyes.

Fire beneath your feet: the terrifying landscape of Jharia

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The fires in Jharia have burned for 99 years. If not stopped, it is estimated that, with the reserves of coal available, they could continue to burn for another 3,800.

Fire beneath your feet: the terrifying landscape of Jharia

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Jharia's scavengers are mysterious men. Working from the crack of dawn, evading authorities, they steal a living from all kinds of danger.

Fire beneath your feet: the terrifying landscape of Jharia

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Dust, fire, smoke and steam. Between the collapsing ground and thick air, life is slowly being squeezed away.

Fire beneath your feet: the terrifying landscape of Jharia

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Locals say Jharia was once covered in thick forest. Nothing in the landscape now gives the impression of supporting life.

HELL ON EARTH

Fire beneath your feet: the terrifying landscape of Jharia's coal mines

Ronny Sen @ronnysen

"What does the end of time look like?

Jharia was once a green forest. Coal was discovered here in the late 19th century and, by the beginning of the 20th, most of India's mineral resource was mined here. The imperial government, princely families and mercenaries wrestled for control of distribution. Jharia withstood their greed, though eventually became successor to its own suffering.

A fire underground has been burning since, but its presence is now overground, inside homes, temples and schools, in churches and mosques. Places that were once thriving with life are now consumed by flames.

The end of time is manifest in shards and fragments; random, scattered elements of human existence, and a community without a future - plunderers of coal who move from site to site along the blasting mines. Survival in an apocalyptic landscape." - Ronny Sen

What you see in Ronny Sen's photographs of Jharia is the true, terrifying cost of coal energy. Taken on a mobile phone over the course of three months spent in the coalfields of Jharkhand's Dhanbad district, the full series of around 300 photographs is an overwhelming document of a place hollowed out by our ever-expanding appetite for coal.

India is among the world's three biggest coal producers and consumers. Almost 70 percent of our electricity is coal-based, and our goals for coal power are only increasing.

310 million Indians still have no access to electricity-that's roughly the population of the United States. Plus, crucial industries like steel depend on coal power.

Almost 70% of our electricity is coal-based, and with 310 million people without electricity access, the appetite for coal is only growing

The Jharia coalfield spans an area of about 250 square kilometres-imagine the city of Kolkata, and then some. It is inhabited by hundreds of thousands of people, most of whom are involved in the coal industry in some way or other.

In 2006, recognising the threat of the century-old fire running rampant across the coalfield-popping up in people's homes, filling the air with smoke and causing the land to collapse-the government announced plans to relocate the 4 lakh inhabitants of the Jharia township to another part of the district.

They reasoned that the cost of relocation would be more than made up for by the value of the coal lying unextracted beneath. But the people of Jharia resist leaving their land and livelihood, though dangerous, because it's all they know.

Sen's photographs make visceral the abstract burden of coal mining. Reports about the environmental and social horrors of mining, though essential, cannot convey what these photographs do: the bleakness of the landscape where the power needs of the country are met, and the precarious lives of those who live on it.

Text by Devika Bakshi

Ronny Sen @ronnysen