Ever since I was a child, I have heard that eskimos have dozens of different words to describe subtle nuances of white. When I arrived in Jharia, I couldn’t help wondering the same thing about the inhabitants of the largest mining area in India. Could these people have developed a special vocabulary for all the nuances of black? One thing is certain : this colour has value in their eyes. In this region they use the Hindi word, Kalaheera, which means ‘black diamond’ when talking about coal.
Roughly 400,000 live in Jharia, a town near Dhanbad, capital of Jharkhand Province. The lunar-like soil hasn’t produced vegetation for a long time and won’t be doing so any time soon. But the danger for local inhabitants does not come from the black dust that is permanently floating in their environment. The danger is deeper and is developing under their feet in the heart of coal veins. Bad management of the mines has led to uncontrolled underground fires. For more than a century, millions of tons of coal have burnt up. It equivalent to a volcano growing under Jharia. Toxic gas vapours spread into the atmosphere, the ground is sinking and houses are starting to crack. Sometimes flames burst up by the roadside.
The imminence of a human disaster is very real. The Indian government is aware of this but doesn’t seem to want to free up enough funds to relocate the population at risk. In Jharia people are not prepared to leave at any cost. Most of the population make a living from coal. The environment is hostile but miners are guaranteed a job and sometimes even accommodation. The most fortunate work for private mining companies, but a large majority go into the pits and quarries owned by the government. The least lucky mine coal with their bare hands in illegal mines run by the local mafia.
In Jharia people are prepared to die at the bottom of a hole in order to provide for their family, but not to be shot dead like a dog by the mafia. From time to time, when there are too many murders, the anger of the local population explodes on the street and, strangely, the slogans and insults are not aimed at the criminals, but at the police and local authorities, accused of having abandoned the town to its fate.