What has been the problem in Jharia over the years?
Unsafe and illegal mining has led to fires in coal deposits under the surface of the Jharia coalfields in Jharkhand’s Dhanbad district, which span over 160 square kilometres. They now pose a risk to the population living on the surface, could lead to cave-ins and gas spills and are a threat to rail transport.

What is the extent of the problem?
When the coal mines were nationalised in 1971, at least 70 mining areas within Jharia were on fire. The problem later spread to seven more mining zones. The number of affected areas has reduced to about 67, as around 10 fires have been extinguished using different methods. Rail routes, including the key Dhanbad-Chandrapura line that is currently in focus, fall in the affected region.

Is there any assessment on just how much time the authorities have at hand to prevent a possible disaster on the tracks?
No. The Railways was told in 2005 that the Dhanbad-Chandrapura line has become dangerous for rail movement. In the 12 years since, neither mining nor rail traffic has stopped, say railway officials. There has, however, been no caving in of the rail track so far.

The Railways and other agencies tasked with tackling the fires say that until a new line comes up, fire-mitigating measures could help them buy time. But with plans still not firmed up, there is no certainty on how long it will take to unfold.

What is the situation on the ground?
Though rail movement has not been affected so far, the actual situation due to the underground fire was underlined by an incident that took place in the Phularibad area of Jharia on May 24. A father and son, Babloo Ansari and Rahim, fell into a pit that had opened up just outside their garage, bellowing carbon monoxide.

The NDRF team could not get down into the pit with temperatures remaining in the high 80s and 90s. Cutting trenches around the hole did not help either. Finally, they were closed when the bodies of the two could not be retrieved in three days. The family has left the area fearing that others too would die.

Following the incident, JRDA has allotted houses to 27 families, including the victims’ family, in Belgaria. Two days after the incident, four other persons fell unconscious in another area of Jharia when the land subsided and created a cavity, emanating poisonous gases.

(Adapted From The Indian Express)