Even as the country is reeling under a power crisis due to shortage of coal, about 1.5 billion tonnes of coal is set to be burnt down in underground fires in Jharia and Raniganj coalfields in Jharkhand and West Bengal, respectively, over the next few years.
Studies by Coal India Limited (CIL) have assessed that about 37 million tonnes of coal have already been burnt down in Jharia (Jharkhand) and Raniganj (West Bengal) and about 1.45 billion tonnes of coal will burn up if no remedial action is taken.CIL’s annual production of about 450 MT is way short of the demand. As a result, India imports about 160 million tonnes of coal every year.
More importantly, the lives of hundreds of thousands of people living in this are in danger as parts of the earth’s surface, some if it with human habitations, can cave in if the coal bearing blocks underground burn to ashes.
While Jharia has a mix of coking and non-coking coal, Raniganj has only non-coking coal, which is used by power plants. If the coal in these mines could be prevented from burning down and, instead, mined, then India’s coal shortage can be substantially averted.
In Jharia and Raniganj, large scale underground fires were detected in the 1970’s. These originated from spontaneous combustion occurring due to unscientific coal mining techniques. Those fires have only grown in scale as the government has not been able to do much about them.
“As a first step we have to quickly shift people from Jharia and rehabilitate them elsewhere. Thereafter, we must quickly mine this trapped coal,” said B Akala, former chairman and managing director of Central Mine Planning and Design Institute, a subsidiary of CIL.
Union coal and power minister Piyush Goyal said the government had planned to shift the population from the underground coal fire affected areas. “For this, CIL needs land, which is not being provided by the state governments,” he said.
The minister agreed that thousands of lives are in danger as they are staying near the underground fire zone.
After years of deliberations, the government finally approved a master plan for addressing the issues arising out of these fires in August 2009. The outlay: Rs 7,112.11 crore for Jharia and Rs 2,661.73 crore for Raniganj. The timeframe to resolve the issue: 10 years.
Five years have passed but little improvement is visible on the ground. The fires continue to rage the rehabilitation process is slipshod, residents said. “Only about Rs 300 crores out of the Rs 10,000 crore allotted has been spent so far,” said Ashok Agarwal, executive president of a local organisation, Save Jharia Coalfields Committee
Union coal secretary SK Srivastava did not respond to a detailed questionnaire sent to him on September 10.
“Bharat Coking Coal was supposed to provide land for the Jharia Action Plan. However, it provided 850 acres of disputed land. This has made things difficult for us,” said Gopal Ji, rehabilitation & development officer, Jharia Rehabilitation Development Authority.
Meanwhile, billions of tonnes of coal continue to smoulder below the surface and thousands of people continue to live in fear.