Diseases, allergies stalk residents of India’s most polluted city Jharia
Arshad Jamal, 48, has been battling a skin disease for four years in addition to asthma. Doctors have advised him to remain indoors, drink clean water and avoid dust pollution to avoid aggravation of his health issues . There is, however, little he can do to heed the advice for Jharkhand’s Jharia, Jamal’s home for 35 years, continues to be among the country’s most polluted cities. According to Greenpeace India’s Airpocalypse-IV annual report released last week, Jharia was India’s most polluted city in 2018.
“I sell clothes on a footpath... to feed my five-member family. If I do not work, what would my family eat?” asked Jamal. He added the doctors have blamed pollution in Jharia for his woes. “Life is no less then hell for us here,” said Jamal, who visits a doctor almost weekly
Jamal is not alone. Many like him in the city of half-a-million known worldwide for its underground coal fires suffer from pollution-induced diseases. Shatia Bhuniya, 50, a local resident who suffers from regular chest pain, said she can feel coal dust and ash inside her body. Babita Devi, a housewife, said they cannot even dry their clothes in the open because of layers of dust that stick to them
In neighbouring Dhanbad that was second on the list of most-polluted cities in 2018 as per the report, Patliputra Medical College and Hospital (PMCH)’s Dr Bibhuti Nath Mittal said most patients from Jharia they treat suffer from pollution-related diseases. “... [They] complain of skin allergies, burning sensation in eyes and allergic bronchitis. Pollution plays a significant role in aggravating such diseases,” said Mittal.
Mittal said Jharia’s air has high levels of nitrogen oxide and sulphur oxide, which can further aggravate breathing ailments, emitted by diesel trucks that move around the city daily carrying coal.
Jharia is the hub of coal mining in Jharkhand and has 40 opencast mines, which are mostly affected by underground fires, according to government officials. Over 2,500 trucks ferry coal out of the region daily.
Kolkata-based organisation Science for Human Being’s March 2017 survey found 17% of Jharia residents face hair loss, 17% suffer from skin diseases and 13% from respiratory issues due to pollution.
Another study by South Korean Future Science Research Institute in October 2019 found a link between high particulate matter (PM) and baldness. It said the PM and dust reduce protein levels in the scalp and lead to hair loss. To be sure, experts say there can be other reasons for hair loss in addition to air pollution.
Coal is the biggest contributor to high air pollution in Jharia, which according to the Greenpeace study, was 50% more than the average annual pollution levels in Delhi in 2018. The Greenpeace report said Jharia recorded highest PM10 at 322 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3) in the country in 2018. It was more than five times the normal limit of the 60 ug/m3.
A study by Dhanbad’s Central Institute of Mining and Fuel Research (CIMFR) in 2018 found opencast mining, underground coal fires and unscientific coal transportation were the major contributors to Jharia’s toxic air. It said the city’s air quality can improve by 50% if the mining is restricted. The study added high PM and emission of toxic gases like nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and carbon dioxide were directly linked to the coal burning.
The CIMFR study’s main author, Raj Sekhar Singh, said PM can reach deep into lungs and lead to diseases like asthma and tuberculosis. He added the diseases were badly impacting human health in Jharia. Jha said nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide were adding to more woos.
Rashtriya Colliery Mazdoor Sangh general secretary A K Jha said 60,000 to 1 lakh tonne coal is extracted daily from Jharia coalfields. He said there are 58 small and big opencast mines operating in the area and almost all opencast mines are fire affected.
Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL), the biggest mines’ operator in the region, officials insist they have taken various measures to check pollution in Jharia.
Sumit Jha, a BCCL official, said most of the mines affected by fires are very old. “The underground fires can be checked only through opencast mining. If fire-affected coal blocks are not extracted at the earliest, they will also damage the entire city,” Jha said.
He said they have made it mandatory for trucks to cover the coal being transported out of the region. “We are also constructing concrete small ponds at exit points of mines so that tyres of the coal loading vehicles could be washed. Water is also sprinkled on roads in morning and afternoon to check dust pollution,” he said. Sumit Jha added greenery was also being promoted.
Activist Pinaki Roy of Save Jharia campaign said the steps being taken were inadequate. “Opening cast mining has reached the city’s boundaries. The height of the coal dumps is much higher than permitted. Even slight wind brings ashes and dust from the mining areas to the city,” he said.
Mohammed Shabir, a local resident, said environmental safeguards were not good enough. “Heavy vehicles enter the city without proper coverings and are laden with coal dust,” he said.
Congress leader Poornima Singh, who is a lawmaker from the region, blamed the previous Bharatiya Janata Party government and BCCL for making Jharia a non-livable place.
“The BCCL has outsourced opencast mines to private companies, which do not follow rules and regulations. A small example is of the coal dumps. Rules say the height of a dump should be between 35-50 metres. However, the minimum height of such dumps in Jharia is 90 metres and a maximum 150 metres, which adds to the pollution problem,” she said. Singh promised more funds to tackle the pollution.