The Coal Fires Of Jharia

13 November 0204
energy Views

In Jharia, in the Jharkhand state of eastern India, coal mining, scavenging and picking plays an overwhelming role in the lives of 600,000 inhabitants. Once abundant woodlands, Jharia is now an apocalyptic landscape of contaminated soil, water and air. Coal seam fires spew around 1.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year into the atmosphere making India the fourth largest global producer of greenhouse gas. 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 (b. 1969) 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 for this feature in 2011. To view more of her work, visit:

  • Smoke rises from an underground coal fires that crack the earth near an open-cast mine where a community of coal scavengers live and work in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand.

  • Illegal coal pickers carry baskets of coal scavenged illegally at an open-cast mine. Many children work there as well. Shafts often collapse killing workers and children.

  • A handmade statue representing a Hindu deity in a small factory in Jharia town.

  • Previously, this was the railway station of Jharia. On the streets, along the railway lines, in the station itself (which is no longer a station), coal is mined.

  • 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.

  • A child in Bokalphari. Coal is mined just about everywhere in Bokalphari. The underground fires are intense and sleep is difficult because of the heat and toxic smoke.

  • 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.

  • Illegal 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 for coal.

  • A coal picker with her child. Her husband and her 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.

  • A Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL) worker. Most of the miners were farmers previously, but as the mining industry took over their land they had to search for another job. In Jharia, coal mining is the one of the only options for any form of employment.