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Century-old underground fires stop trains in India amid passenger safety fears

S. N. M. Abdi

Published: Updated:

Underground fires burning for more than a century have forced authorities in India to evacuate a college and stop railway operations in the dangerous zone lest passenger trains fall into the inferno below the surface.

The first underground fires in Jharia coalfields of Jharkhand state in eastern India were reported way back in 1916 and all attempts to extinguish them have miserably failed so far. To prevent deaths, Bhagatdih’s historic Raja Shiv Prasad College, which has 6000 students on its rolls, has just been shifted to a safer site in Jamadoba six km away

And as more and more land in the affected area has started cracking or caving in due to subterranean fires, railway officials have decided not to run passenger trains on the 41-km stretch between Chandrapura and Dhanbad.

The gravity of the situation can be gauged from the fact the Nripendra Mishra, Principal Secretary to Prime Minister Narendra Modi – arguably the nation’s most powerful bureaucrat – chaired a meeting of senior officers from the ministries of Coal and Railways, the Geological Survey of India, Jharkhand government and other departments, prior to the suspension of passenger train service between Chandrapura and Dhanbad.

A truck is loaded with top soil at the Jharia burning coal field at Dhanbad district in the eastern state of Jharkhand, India, September 17, 2012. (Reuters)
A truck is loaded with top soil at the Jharia burning coal field at Dhanbad district in the eastern state of Jharkhand, India, September 17, 2012. (Reuters)

War footing scale

Analysts say it is high time the Indian government tackles the situation on a war footing in the national interest without wasting any more time. As the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in power in the country as well as in the state of Jharkhand, the federal and state governments can easily pool their resources without political rivalry throwing a spanner in the works.

Entrepreneurs started mining coal in Jharia in 1894 laying the foundation of the iron and steel industry in mineral-rich eastern India during British rule. Privately-mined coal fueled not only industrialization but power supplies and train engines.

In 1971, when coalmines were suddenly nationalized by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, around 70 underground fires were raging below the surface. While the fires have not been doused, Jharia’s two underground and nine open-cast mines are still a valuable source of top grade coal.

Miners’ safety

Ashish Thakur, a leading mining expert who has studied Jharia’s underground fires for decades, says coal fires are common across the world. “They can be caused by lightening, forest fires, human accidents, and improper shutting down of old mines. The fire in Jharia started when the mines were owned by private businessmen who exploited local labour and cared little about the miners’ safety”, he says.

The notorious Jharia underground fires cover an area of nearly 250 sq km with a population of around 500,000. In this dangerous zone, soil, water, and air are badly polluted. The intense heat singes the landscape killing trees and plants. Human beings too are threatened by poisonous gases like sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide produced by smoldering fires.

It is really intriguing how an advanced nation like India has failed to douse the century old underground fires despite the devastation they are wreaking. At stake is India’s strategic coal reserves making it imperative defuse the ticking time bomb.