The coal fires of Jaharia
Views 15 June 2016


In Jharia, in the Jharkhand state of eastern India, coal mining and scavenging plays an overwhelming role in the lives of 600,000 inhabitants. Opened in 1896, the Jharia underground mines were nationalized in 1973 and operated by Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL) which decided to opt for more profitable opencast mining. Extracted quantities of coal are significantly higher than in deep mining and cost less. They are also mostly illegally, since in 97% of cases no licences are granted. Apart from the toxic health hazards, instead of putting out the fires, the massive resettlement project – the Jharia Action Plan (JAP) – is moving inhabitants to a new town called Belgaria where there are no schools, no shops, and no jobs. Many decide to stay in Jharia, despite the fires and fumes, to mine coal.

Isabell Zipfel grew up in Rome and now lives in Berlin. Before embarking on her career as a photographer, she translated screenplays and earned a Master’s degree in German studies and Italian literature. She visited Jharia in 2011.

  • Illegal coal pickers scavenge from an open-cast mine in the Jharia district of Jharkhand. Everyday they risk their lives by doing this work since shafts often collapse.
  • Female scavengers stand next to small piles of coal burning from an open-cast mine in the Jharia district. Afterwards they sell the coal.
  • A mother and her child stay warm next to small piles of burning coal illegally scavenged near an open-cast mine in Jharia. Most of the population are now illegal coal scavengers.
  • Young coal picker in Bokalphari. Many children work in the coal industry as coal pickers to earn money for their families. The children do not go to school.
  • A girl dances near plumes of smoke from fires of coal scavenged by her family in Bokalpari village. She is also a young coal picker and never went to school.
  • Children playing in Bokalpari village next to an open-cast mine. Houses are destroyed by BCCL forcing the inhabitants to move since BCCL needs more land to mine more coal.
  • Coal pickers carry baskets of coal illegally gathered from an open-cast mine. Police patrol the area, so they have to pay them an extra fee to continue scavenging.
  • A coal picker with her child. She and her husband work in an illegal coal shaft and live nearby the toxic fumes of the mining.
  • Laundry of the inhabitants of Bokalpari. The village is next to an open-cast mine. Smoke and toxic fumes make it hard to breathe.
  • Smoke rises from an underground coal fires that crack the earth near an open-cast mine in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand.
  • On the streets, along the railway lines, in what was the station of Jharia, coal is mined.