Coal mine fires an election issue in Jharkhand

April 12th, 2009 - 12:03 pm ICT by IANS  

Bharatiya Janata Party Ranchi, April 12 (IANS) The fires have been burning underground in the Jharia coalfields since 1916. Political parties are feeling the heat in this general election with displacement due to the fires and industrialisation becoming key campaign issues.
The Jharkhand government last year announced a rehabilitation package of Rs.6,400 crore (Rs.64 billion), including for relocating people of Jharia where the underground fires have rendered thousands of acres infertile, engulfed over a dozen houses in Jharia town and killed at least 30 people.

The Jharia Coalfield Bachao Samiti (Save Jharia Coalfield Committee) has distributed pamphlets among the town’s 80,000 voters, asking them to vote only for political parties that put out the fires instead of making people vacate the affected areas.

“The rehabilitation package announced by the government asks people in Jharia town to be evacuated,” Pinaki Roy, a member of the group, told IANS, adding there was no need for this.

Samiti president Madan Lal Khanna alleged that both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had cheated them. “We appeal to voters to be alert while voting. There is a solution to the fire but political parties are not taking any interest,” he said.

Opened in 1896, the Jharia mines in Dhanbad district, around 270 km from Ranchi, have huge deposits of coal. But the fires, first detected in 1916 and raging underground over an area of 17 sq km, have destroyed 39 million tonnes of coal, according to officials of the Bharat Coking Coal Ltd that runs the mines.

Experts say there are 1,000 million tonnes of coal still in the mines. But this can only be extracted when the residents are shifted out and efforts made to extinguish the fires.

Said Pashupati Nath Singh, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate from Dhanbad: “We sympathise with the residents of Jharia. We are serious about ending the century-old problem.”

Displacement due to industries is also bothering the voters. The Congress party is treading cautiously on the issue.

“The Congress believes in development. But we are not in favour of acquiring farm land,” said Alok Dubey, its spokesman.

A Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) leader not wishing to be named told IANS: “The JMM has always supported the demand of people that there should be no displacement. But development is a must and industrialisation is part of development.”

Dayamani Barla, president of the Visthapan Virodhi Morcha (VVM), said: “We appeal to the people not to vote for those who talk of displacement.”

In Jharkhand, as much as a third of the population has been displaced over the years due to major industrial and mining projects.

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