Migrant Parents Pushing 20,000 Young Children Towards Death In Jharia's Tunnels
THE WEEK|December 06, 2020
Parents keep pushing little children towards death in Jharia’s mines
Rabi Banerjee
Known as the powerhouse of India because of its vast coalfield, Jharia town in Jharkhand is the country’s largest source of prime coking coal, with estimated reserves of 19.4 billion tonnes. Mining here is done by Bharat Coking Coal Ltd (BCCL), which produces bulk of India’s coking coal used in blast furnaces, power plants and steel industry. More than 90 per cent of BCCL’s output comes from Jharia.

In 1916, an underground fire was detected in the coalfield; it is still burning, spewing out poisonous gases like methane, carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide. Spontaneous combustion—sudden fires caused by oxidation of coal particles—is common here. Enveloped in smoke and coal dust, Jharia is the most polluted Indian town; it retained its number one position in a January 2020 Greenpeace India report.

Breathing in toxic gases and coal dust, too many people in Jharia and in the nearby Dhanbad city suffer from tuberculosis, asthma, asbestosis, pneumoconiosis and skin allergies. Many children in Jharia were born with deformities; many are stunted.

Dr Ranabir Chowdhary, an internist from Kolkata, sees numerous patients from Jharia and Dhanbad. He said too many people there die of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). “First the lungs get filled with coal particles, leading to pneumoconiosis,” he said. “COPD and tuberculosis follow, and then death. Many people don’t live beyond 25 years and many children die.”

Soumen Chatterjee, general manager, BCCL, said the company could not be blamed for the deaths. “We hold health camps for residents and give them medicines, but most patients do not attend these camps regularly.”

More than 70,000 people, mostly dalits from Bihar, live around the coalfield. They make a living scavenging for coal in the mines and selling it to local eateries, brick kilns and small traders.

In 2000, BCCL started opencast mining in Jharia, extracting coal by digging open pits or tunnels. The tunnels are supposed to be filled up after coal extraction, but more often than not, they are left open, tempting local residents to enter them to pick up leftover coal.

Over the years, many residents, particularly children, have suffered grievous injuries or perished in the mines. “According to unofficial figures, around 25 children die in the mines each year,” said Shibpalak Paswan, president of the Bihar Colliery Kamgar Union. “We don’t know the actual figure, as many families do not report the deaths, fearing police harassment for illegally sending minor children to scavenge for coal. They need to feed themselves, so they silently deal with their grief.”

At least 20,000 children explore Jharia’s mines. The parents encourage them, as adults cannot easily slide through the narrow tunnels or dodge the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) guarding the mines.

About 130 children have died in these mines in the past five years, according to unofficial estimates. But BCCL says only 65 lives have been lost, including adults. “The number of deaths has greatly reduced because of intense vigilance,” said P.M. Prasad, chairman and managing director, BCCL. “But if people die while stealing coal, and the matter is not reported to us, we can do little.” Chatterjee added, “In a way, the families themselves are responsible for the deaths of their children.”

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