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Coal mining fires and many other conflicts in coal fields of Dhanbad, Jharkhand, India


Dhanbad is one of the 24 districts in the state of Jharkhand. It is located in the mid-eastern part of Jharkhand, with Giridih in the north, Bokaro in the west, Jamtara district in the east, and Purulia district (of West Bengal) in the south. It is famous for the disaster in 1965  in Dhori colliery near Dhanbad, which led to fire in the mines. The fire killed hundreds of miners. There are frequent major incidents because of underground coal fires. In early 2017 it was reported that trains would not run because in the Dhanbad-Chandrapur section because of a raging underground coal mine fire. The Dhanbad-Chandrapur section is a major route for passenger and freight trains. Coal for thermal power plants across the country is transported from there. The underground coal mine fires in the Jharia district have been raging  since the last century but in recent decades open-cast mining has brought the flames to the surface with devastating consequences for the local population. (1).

Many of the mines around Dhanbad and Jharia have been on fire for decades now. The area also has several thermal power plants and a large number of coal washeries. This  area suffers from dust and smoke from the mines, from coal transport, overburden of the mines, ash from power plants, and the effluents from washeries.

Dhanbad district is a land of contradictions. History and etymology reveals that Dhanbad district was a region of thriving agriculture. The Hindi words dhaan meaning grain and Baid meaning farmland join to make the word Dhanbad. Another theory breaks the word into dhan (wealth) and abad (prosperous), meaning a place of great wealth, due to the presence of minerals. The contradiction here is that in the land of wealth, there exist deep poverty. 381,250 households among 423,880 households in Dhanbad district are below poverty line.

Dhanbad city is called the coal capital of India and it consists of some of the largest coal mines in India. It has a mining history of around 200 years. It provides for one of the highest quality of coal available in India. It has, thus, for long attracted mining activities. Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL), TISCO, Tata Steel, Eastern Coalfields Limited (ECL) and Indian Iron And Steel Company (IISCO) are some of the major companies that are involved in mining at Dhanbad distrct. Coal business started at Dhanbad around 1910 with the opening of several coal mines by Tata Steel. At present, there are around 112 official coal mines and approximately the same number of illegal coal mines. The coal mining companies tend to employ more of migrant workers as they are cheaper compared to the local labour. There is lack of job opportunities because of which people get involved with illegal mining. Around 68.55% of the population capable of working do not have livelihood activities to engage in, most thus choose ‘illegal’ mining as a source of income (Census, 2011). There has been no recruitment of workers on the permanent basis after 1992, all the workers have been recruited on the basis of contracts. While the permanent workers earn Rs. 700 and Rs. 1,000 a day and receive company accommodation, health care, and other benefits, the workers hired through contracts are paid Rs. 100 a day with no such incentives. The children are compelled to extract coal illegally from mines over education because of the earning that they get easily from selling coal. 

The other aspect of mining projects is its harmful effects on environment as well as the people living near the mines. Because of poor management of mines, especially open mines, water has been contaminated, air has been polluted, there is unchecked underground fire and several incidences have happened of land sinking. One of the major impact is on agriculture. After the introduction of open source mining in Dhanbad, the big coal companies exchanged lands from the people against a promise of jobs, and a promise of returning the land post mining. Since the lands were never filled after mining, the lands that were returned to the people were not fit for agriculture since there was no plain fertile land. This general trend of abandoning the mines after coal extraction has increased the problem of lack of plain land for agriculture. This means if any land has been used for mining, it cannot be used for any other purpose. In addition to the problem of loss of plain land, mining also pollutes the soil because of its high sulfur content, volatility, and many environmental sensitive organic and mineral bound elements such as Fe, Mg, Bi, Al, V, Cu, Cd, Ni, Pb and Mn etc. This means that the soil in many parts of Dhanbad has no potential to produce anything. Mining has caused huge deforestation too. Further, the bad environmental condition has led to health problems among people like asthma, tuberculosis, water borne diseases like typhoid, cholera, dysentery, diarrhoea and in children pneumonia, viral diseases, malnutrition are very common.

In 1971-1973, mining was nationalised and mechanised and BCCL became the major player in the mining industry. The miseries of people increased, many of the workers lost their jobs, people were dispossessed and displaced from their lands. However, under the Mines Act, 1952 and CSR policy framed by the Company under Section 135 of the Companies Act, 2013, there is a mandate on the companies to give preference to the local area and areas around it where they operate for spending the amount of at least 2% of their earnings for CSR activities. District Mineral Foundation (DMF) is another institution created under the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Amendment Act (MMDR), 2015 that release around 230 crores every year with the purpose of sharing mining benefits with mining-affected areas. This institution came into existence on September 15, 2015. While there has been work done in most sectors, it is at best half done. Indicators such as Education, Drinking water, Sanitation, Employment and livelihood, Public Health, Environment, Food Security and Nutrition were considered to gauge the situation in the district. Dhanbad district with regard to education has issues of infrastructure, pupil-teacher ratio and quality of education provided. According to the DISE report, the literacy level of grade 5 government school children in Dhanbad matches that of the grade 2 or grade 3 children in private schools. Government schools are running only for the sake of running and are functional only due to the mid-day meal scheme. As per the mid-day meal scheme, children in schools are provided with free lunches on working days. This school meal programme of the Government of India is designed to improve the nutritional status of school-age children nationwide. With regard to drinking water and sanitation, all the three important measures of quantity, quality and accessibility are problematic. Around 40% of households draw drinking water from non-reliable resources, that makes water non accessible and poor in quality. With regard to employment, the major occupation is seasonal labour and there is a lack of variety of livelihood choices because of mining. There are only 844,504 working population in the population of 26, 84,487 (Census, 2011). This shows that only 31.45 percent of population is working which includes cultivators, agricultural labour, mining and quarrying, and household industry. Rest of the population capable of working do not have other livelihood activities to engage in, most thus choose ‘illegal’ mining as a source of income. The biggest issues in Public health is one of lack of personnel to work in the existing health centres, moreover there are just not enough health centres, especially in the mining affected blocks. Environment too is quite degraded in the mining affected blocks, the groundwater levels are critical. Generally, the groundwater pipes for the hand pumps were laid to reach a depth of 100-150 meters, but now, water level has gone down to about 400-500 meters in some places. Air pollution in Dhanbad is one of the highest in India. In a study carried out by students of IIT Delhi, Dhanbad stood 13th among the 88 most polluted clusters of the country, especially in the mining areas. While there are enough anganwadi centers (type of rural mother and child care centres in India), the issues is that more than 45 percent of the Anganwadi Centers are not in the working condition. The anganwadis are generally running in a room with no adequate facilities.

The problems of mining affected areas and the people residing in the mining affected areas leads to large amount of ‘conflicts’ in the area. The protests in front of administration offices or sit-down actions in front of mine gates and local newspapers or the section of local news in the mainstream newspapers filled with news of protests, are regular events in Dhanbad. The struggle is of different groups of proletarians like the permanent workers, workers hired through contractors, unemployed and displaced villagers. Each of the groups struggle on the bases of its own specific relation to the mines and for its specific demands. One of the protest which happened on 8th of March 2011, when unorganized sector workers (from official mines and coal processing plants) organized by Bihar Colliery Kamgar Union (BCKU) rallied in front of main administration in Barora and Block 2, demanding the payment of minimum wages and the implementation of other ‘statutory rights’. The other example can be the two-three days wildcat strike of permanent and temporary workers together against Moonidih Project in November 2010 demanding compensation for the family after the death of a temporary worker. The strike was successful and the management agreed in the end. Many of the activists are struggling for the rights of the people in the mining-affected areas, one such activist is Dayamani Barla, the tribal activist from Jharkhand. Her philosophy was to fight against the established unjust policies and protecting her fellow tribal from displacement. There has been continuous struggle against the coal mining companies. 

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Coal mining fires and many other conflicts in coal fields of Dhanbad, Jharkhand, India
State or province:Jharkhand
Location of conflict:Dhanbad
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Mineral Ores and Building Materials Extraction
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Tailings from mines
Landfills, toxic waste treatment, uncontrolled dump sites
Land acquisition conflicts
Climate change related conflicts (glaciers and small islands)
Coal extraction and processing
Water access rights and entitlements
Water treatment and access to sanitation (access to sewage)
Transport infrastructure networks (roads, railways, hydroways, canals and pipelines)
Pollution related to transport (spills, dust, emissions)
Specific commodities:Land
Forest products

Project Details and Actors

Project details

Dhanbad is the India’s main centre for coking coal, a particular type of coal important for steel production. Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL), TISCO, Tata Steel, Eastern Coalfields Limited (ECL) and Indian Iron And Steel Company (IISCO) are some of the major companies that are involved in mining at Dhanbad distrct. The coal mines were nationalized in 1971, and a majority of the mines in the region are now owned by the state-owned BCCL. Till 1973, underground mining was more of the norm, but a premium on profits has changed things since then, and open cast mining is the preferred method now. The official coal mines produce 27.5 million tonnes of coal annually with an annual income of 7000 million rupees. Trucks loaded with coal and heavy machinery dominate the scenery, interrupted by push-carts and bicycles loaded with coal. Hence, the other key actor are the locals who carry coal illegally on daily basis and sell them to earn their livelihood. The coal mining companies employ workers on contract basis and mostly the migrants to minimise their expenditure on wages. The locals either migrate or get involved with illegal mining. The mines are spread almost all over the district. Baghmara, Nirsa, Egarkund, Kaliyasol, Govindpur, Baliapur, Dhanbad and Topchachi are the 8 blocks among 10 that are partially or completely mining affected.

Project area:27,000
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:1,125,000
Start of the conflict:01/01/1971
Company names or state enterprises:Bharat Coking Coal Limited, TISCO, Tata Steel, Eastern Coalfields Limited (ECL), Indian Iron And Steel Company (IISCO) (BCCL) from India
Relevant government actors:District Mineral Foundation, Government of India, Government of Jharkhand, Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Directorate General of Mines safety, The Industries and Commerce Association, Ministry of coal, Department of science and Technology, Ministry of rural development
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Centre for Science and Environment (CSE)
Jharkhand Mines Area Coordination Committee (JMACC)

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityLOW (some local organising)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Artisanal miners
Industrial workers
Informal workers
Landless peasants
Trade unions
Forms of mobilization:Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Media based activism/alternative media
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Occupation of buildings/public spaces


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Desertification/Drought, Fires, Food insecurity (crop damage), Global warming, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Noise pollution, Soil contamination, Soil erosion, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity, Mine tailing spills, Other Environmental impacts
Other Environmental impactsLand sinking
Health ImpactsVisible: Accidents, Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Health problems related to alcoholism, prostitution, Occupational disease and accidents, Infectious diseases, Deaths, Other environmental related diseases, Other Health impacts, Malnutrition
Potential: Violence related health impacts (homicides, rape, etc..)
Other Health impactsBreathing Problem, Vomiting, Lung infection, pneumoconiosis, asthma, tuberculosis, water borne diseases like typhoid, cholera, dysentery, diarrhoea and in children pneumonia, viral diseases, malnutrition
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Displacement, Increase in violence and crime, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..), Specific impacts on women, Violations of human rights, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place, Other socio-economic impacts
Potential: Militarization and increased police presence
Other socio-economic impactsPeople are either migrating or getting involved with illegal coal mining to earn their means of livelihood


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
Deaths, Assassinations, Murders
New Environmental Impact Assessment/Study
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:BCCL and the private mining companies through their CSR provide the facilities of health, education, livelihood, electricity and proper sanitation to the people living in the mining-affected areas. The mining companies are also mandated to preserve the environment. However, the alternatives created are not there in the implementation. There is lack of availability of drinking water, air is polluted to the extent that people find it difficult to breathe, temperature of areas near by mines have increased , there is always a fear of land sinking among people. There are several incidences of land sinking causing deaths.

Sources & Materials

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

The Voice of Jharkhand

Welfare Schemes/Programmes by Mining Companies

Census 2011

Integrated Management Information System (IMIS), Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation

Bharat Coking Coal Limited

Centre for Science and Environment

Report from Dhanbad Coal Fields

Living with fire in India's Jharia

Fatal plunge in mine

Overview of Coal Mining in India: Investigative Report from Dhanbad Coal Fields

15 Photos That Reveal The ‘Dirty’ Work That Sustains One Of India’s Largest Coal Mines

The Dhanbad -Jharia Coal-Mining Area

Business and Economy of Dhanbad

Coal Cycle Wallahs of Dhanbad

Supreme Court gives breather to mining companies, clarifies on DMF payment

(1) India: The Burning City. We investigate how an underground fire that has been burning for 100 years has led to one of India's largest land grabs. 05 Jan 2017

Meta information

Contributor:Rachna Kashyap, Kalpavriksha
Last update18/08/2019



Mine tracks


Open mines