A roaring economy is hitched to a galloping coal addiction
JHARIA, India — Night falls here by 5 p.m. and people stream into the open-air market to catch the latest political news. They have much to discuss, because elections are currently on in the state of Jharkhand, which is famous for three things: corruption, a home-grown terrorism threat called Naxalism, and this area’s economic life, which is marked in every imaginable way by coal.
Coal-fired electricity lights a single incandescent bulb in each shop, and the combined yellow glow gives the market a festive air. Underneath this town, the earth is burning. Suresh Kumar, 50, secretary of a local union, leaves the tea shop where he has his makeshift office and steers his motorbike down a road lined with dark piles of mining debris.
The light from his headlight is blocked by plumes of smelly, sulfurous smoke seeping out of the ground. He stops suddenly, seeing how close he has come to the edge of an open-pit mine. In the far distance, there is an orange glow in the sky. It is a non-natural sunshine reflecting the burning of millions of tons of prime coking coal. The underground fire has burned out of control for nearly a century.
Coal is the bane of Jharkhand, and the reason why Kumar and his fellow residents need to move out of the town. If the government has its way, 17 open-pit mining complexes will be built here. Below the town lie 19 seams of prime coking coal. The government’s goal is to get at the coal before the fire does.
There are many offshoots of this little drama that illustrate the high environmental and public health costs of extracting the biggest natural resource sustaining India’s economic boom.
BOKARO, India — The men who work at Bokaro Steel City (there are few women) behave as though they are in the Wild West. Some are slick and charming with their words. They stand in air filled with fine coal dust that gets into every crevice of the skin and upper respiratory system, while saying that the dust filters are 99.9 percent efficient.
Others, such as the gun-toting security guards, are silent and watchful. They need to be, in order to cope with the pressures that are unique to Jharkhand, India’s richest coal state. The state is among the most corrupt in the country. It is the richest in mineral wealth, and faces a home-grown communist threat called Naxalism. It has a thriving coal mafia, and millions of dollars get traded between politicians leveraging the future of the residents to gain control over the fuel.
Bokaro is an insignificant player in these politics, for all it does is use the coal to make steel. The steel city rises in majestic order above the chaos of Jharkhand. It is immense, occupying 70 square miles including an airstrip, 186 miles of locomotive tracks and a 320-megawatt coal-burning thermal power plant. All this was built in the 1960s, when India was leaning toward socialism and Jharkhand was still mostly forest. It was India’s first steel plant, built with the help of the Soviets.
“This is where hell can be seen on earth,” said David Mony, general manager of operations for Bokaro, referring to the steel-making process.
Navin Srivastava, one of Mony’s subordinates (or “boys,” as he called them), placed his eye against a tiny peephole that serves as a window into the 2,500-degree-Fahrenheit steel kiln filled with blue-hot gas. Black chunks of hard coke imported from Australia are added from the top. Orange-hot liquid steel accompanied by sparks pours out into molds at the bottom.
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