picture-8.jpg

Gene, at the Climate Rescue Station, compares the coal mining industry in Poland to what he has seen in his home country - India.

On the streets of Amsterdam, on the off chance that you're paying any attention to the pavement, you might spot a stray ladybug tile. These spots mark scenes of senseless violence. [editor's comment - does violence ever make sense?]

If these ladybug tiles were to be laid at every scene of senseless violence across the world, our planet would look like one big red-and-black ball from outer space.

A ladybug tile would be needed at the Jozwin 2B opencast mine in Konin, from the edge of which I write this blog. Dozens more would be needed for Poland's other coal mines. And one for the doorsteps of each of its thermal power plants.

These tiles would also need to stretch end-to-end across the coal belt of India, at thermal power plants in Dadri and Raichur and Kolaghat, at big dams in Narmada and Tehri, at nuclear power plants in Kaiga and Kudankulam, at oilfields in Assam and oil-rigs in the Kutch, at every assembly line manufacturing giant SUVs for India's fat and rich.

And of course, one ladybug tile would need to commemorate the senseless violence at Jharia.

picture-25.jpg

Jharia, in the heartland of India, has coal reserves that span an area of 450 square kilometers. It's not just the largest coalfield in India, it's also by far the oldest, with mining activity that dates back over a century.

Just like Konin, Jharia's entire economy is built on the coal beneath the area. Coal, popularly known as "kala-heera" (Black diamond) is the only source of livelihood for people there. It's difficult to find any family in Jharia where at least one member isn't involved in mining work, or in selling coal on the unorganised market.

Taking a trip around Jharia town, camera and notepad in hand - as an activist, you're eager to document in human terms everything you witness, warts and all, yet keenly aware that you must maintain your objectivity and not view everything through the prism of your prejudices. In the background, the Dhanbad coal mafia runs the show. In the foreground, it's hell on earth.

The whole town is grey with coal dust, all water sources are contaminated with the waste released from coal washeries, the soil hasn't given root to any vegetation in years and never will, and noxious gases spew forth endlessly from hundreds of fissures and cracks that show up unannounced along roads, courtyards and fields. The average life expectancy here competes with that of people living in a war-zone.

picture-91.jpg

At any one point of time, at least seventy coal-field fires smolder both above the ground and at the subterranean level. The oldest among these has raged for nearly as long as coal has been mined in Jharia. Together, they've consumed around 42 million tonnes of the finest black stuff known to man.

These fires have also hollowed out the earth upon which the city stands. As a result, houses develop cracks, walls collapse, and floors cave in, often without warning.

Once confined to the outskirts of town, the fire has spread inside the city... its flames can even be seen at the main square The Jharia-Patherdih railway station, once thronged by commuters, stands deserted. Fires below the railway tracks forced the station to shut down long ago.

As Jharia burns, the people who've chosen to make this place their home brave the fire and fumes to somehow eke a living and feed themselves two square meals a day.

Unlike Jozwin 2B here in Poland, Jharia doesn't show up in satellite pictures because a thick haze has covered the area for over a century. Some of the other stuff that doesn't show up in satellite pictures is the lethal cocktail of poisonous gases that are contained in the smoke from Jharia's many fires... particulate matter, oxides and dioxides of carbon, nitrogen and sulphur. Google Earth won't show you the many variants of skin and respiratory diseases, the chronic bronchitis, the tuberculosis, the asthma and the pneumoconiosis that define the life and death of Jharia. The last bit is an interesting medical condition.

As hardly any of the workers in the open cast mines wear any protective gear -- no masks, no boots, no overalls -- most end up with a film of soot covering their lungs. By the time pneumoconiosis is detected, it's too late to do anything. And then they die.

Muzaffar Hussain is 32 years old and works with BCCL, the state mining company that runs Jharia's killing fields. His house, which shelters a family of ten, is practically a gas chamber with noxious gas hissing from cracks in the floor. His wife has been suffering from continuous nausea and breathing problems, and half of Muzaffar's monthly salary goes into her treatment. Like many others who work for BCCL, he hasn't received the health card that assures subsidised treatment at the hospital.

picture-121.jpg

Gayatri Devi, an illegal coal collector, is 50 and lives in a one-room house in one of Jharia's active fire zones called Bokapahadi. The floor of her house has a huge crack, fumes from which fill the house. "I have lived here for 40 years," Gayatri tells us. "Last year, the floor cracked and since then my house is on fire. When we walk barefoot our feet burn. At night, my children feel suffocated on the pungent fumes. Eight of us sleep in this room. Neither have we anywhere to go, nor have we the money to make another house. We will probably die here."

In Lodhna, a slum in one of Jharia's fire zones, Greenpeace interviewed Shanti. "I have an unending headache due to these gases. It lasts for days. My children are also down with a headache most of the time. At times, there is no-one to go to work because my husband has TB. He coughs blood and is very sick. I hope we get over these troubled times soon..."

The testimonies of survival go on and on, like an engraved wall at some holocaust memorial.

picture-33.jpg

According to BCCL's General Manager for Environment, they've been trying their best for the past two decades to control these fires, but there's no permanent solution. I'll repeat that last sentence just so you know this isn't a typo: they've been trying to stop the fires for two decades.

Of course they have. They've even proposed a budget of 60 Billion INR (1 Billion EUR) for controlling the fires and "shifting parts of the town." That would be the nearly 300,000 population of Jharia, 150,000 of them being miners, truck drivers, loaders and workers of one sort or the other. It's glaringly obvious why BCCL would like to spend a billion Euro on stopping fires and relocating people, instead of shutting down the mines, investing in clean energy and creating green-collar jobs... their single-point mandate is to dig for coal, and more coal, and nothing else.

Jharia and Jozwin 2B are worlds apart, yet their past and future are joined at the hip like some unmentionable medical horror.

The coalfields of Konin, many timezones away from Jharia, continue to projectile vomit the dirtiest fuel known to humankind. If current plans to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in coal plants are realised, CO2 emissions from coal could increase 60% by 2030, putting 120,000 Polish homes (and 350 million people worldwide) at risk of displacement due to flooding, putting 3 billion people at risk of water shortage, and putting over 40% of Earth's ecosystems at risk of extinction.

Already, more than 68% of India's energy needs are met by burning fossil fuels, over 92.3% of which are coal... and the country spends upwards of 140 billion dollars every year for the privilege.

But things needn't be this way forever, because Greenpeace has come up with a plan that would enable India to sustain its economic growth without increasing its Carbon emissions. It's called the Energy Revolution blueprint and it shows how renewable energy, combined with greater energy efficiency, can cut global CO2 emissions by almost 50%, and deliver half the worldís energy needs by 2050.

Considering that the Indian government isn't big into global altruism (when was the last time that happened?), the Energy Revolution scenario should still be a perfect whetstone for it to grind its axe on. By 2050, we can generate 48% of our energy (or 915 GigaWatts) from renewables -- sources you can pluck straight out of the sky... the wind, the sun's rays, simple things like that.

When India implements this plan, no new coal-fired power plants or lignite mines will be required. There will never again be any need for a Jharia. Just like there will never again be any need for a Jozwin 2B.

Images © Greenpeace/ Pete Caton