A Dying Land
Jharia, India - For 100-years a fire has been raging in India's major coal mining region. The fire has been burning underground with no signs of stopping and with an unlimited fuel supply of coal. There are legends as to how the fire began from a local accidentally setting it alight to natural gas combustion.
Across Jharia, the underground fire is causing severe and inter-connected health, environmental, and social development issues.
As the fire burns uncontrollably, a constant plume of deadly toxic gases and particulates are released, which blanket the region day and night. Carbon dioxide, sulphur, lead, arsenic, and more, which are all linked to severe health conditions when inhaled is the regions daily breath of air. The women and children that work in the mines that scavenge coal to sell on the black market share the highest risk.
Jharia is a poignant reminder of our societies reliance on fossil fuels, which are responsible for climate change. How far we push the human and environmental cost to meet our energy needs is a question unanswered. For now, the people of Jharia are so reliant on the coal mines to make a living that the benefits far outweigh the cost and risk. Afterall, there are few alternatives in a burning and dying land.
At first, I never knew what to expect, and I had no idea, yet, as of how I would photograph the region, the people that lived there, and how this destructive human activity was affecting the planet, but also us.
Before seeing, however, I could smell the toxic air as I breathed in. It was potent. I imagined the heavy metals and gases from burning coal seeping into my lungs and then into my bloodstream. Then I remembered; people are living and working within this region, and this is their daily breath of air. I was there by choice and could leave at any time. It was a sobering thought.
At first sight of the mines I saw the smoke billow up into the sky from deep inside mines reminded me of a wound bleeding. It was as if the Earth was being cut open and ripped apart. This moment changed everything for me, and I finally realised, in real-time, how we are killing our planet and ourselves.
Around the mines, landscapes had collapsed entirely due to the underground fires making areas look like earthquake zones except with fire’s burning in the cracks. Homes destroyed and villages abandoned. It wasn't just the toxic air that was slowly killing people, but also the sinkholes and contaminated water from mine tailings. But many people still endured nearby in their modest homes.
Inside the mines, most of the activity was dominated by the women that would scavenge for coal and carry it out in baskets on their heads. Each basket weighed anywhere between 50-80kgs and would, as locals told me, only sell for around $2USD. It was backbreaking and dangerous work. Much of the coal would be turned into charcoal and sold on the black market and also used inside homes for cooking where the smoke from cooking would further contribute to toxic air that was already surrounding them.
It was inside the charcoal producing field, however, that the most challenging photograph I have ever made took place. The smoke produced from hundreds, perhaps thousands, of piles of burning coal, was choking. In this field where many people work was a child, waiting for her parents. She sat there, face blackened by coal dust, breathing in the fumes, waiting. No child should have to suffer this reality. It was then, and there, I questioned myself: what kind of society do we live in that lets this happen? Something is very wrong.