Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg
Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg

The Coal Lands Of Jharia

As all eyes look to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at climate talks in Paris this week, underground fires rage below open cast mines in Jharia, a remote region in eastern India. The incessant mining and the underground fire that has been burning for almost a century has contaminated everything: the soil, the water and the air. Photography by Sanjit Das for Bloomberg.

A driver operates a loader at a privately run open cast coal mine at the Bastacolla Colliery in Jharia, Jharkhand.

A family prepares a fire for coking coal in Laltengunj village in Jharia. Inhabitants in the 110 square mile (280 square kilometer) Jharia coal fields make a living from the illegal mining of coal. They survive by selling the coal they extract to the depots run by local politicians, according to a coal ministry official who requested anonymity.

India’s size makes it essential to any meaningful deal in Paris, where 130 leaders will attempt what a 2009 summit in Copenhagen failed to do: seal a climate treaty binding all nations to limit emissions and halt global warming. The country now has 1.3 billion people, and it’s set to overtake China as the world's most populous country by 2022.

India needs an enormous amount of infrastructure investment to raise the lowest living standards among the biggest emerging markets.

Flames break the surface from coal fires that burn underground in Laltengunj village.

The illicit coal trade, which has spawned an alternate economy comprising transport services, groceries, garment shops and food outlets, encourage residents to brave the health hazards and the mine accidents.

Day laborers load coal onto trucks at the Goladi Depot in Jharia. By 2040, India will have the fastest-growing electricity demand among major economies and be the top driver of global coal demand, according to the International Energy Agency.

A haul road winds through a privately run open-cast coal mine at the Bastacolla Colliery.

At the climate talks in Paris this week, developing nations are looking for Modi to champion their interests in winning funds to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

Smoke breaks the surface from the burning open cast coal mines in Bastacolla Colliery.

Flames break through the ground from coal fires that burn underground. For Modi, the summit is an opportunity to claim a spot among the world’s top statesmen crafting a solution to one of the biggest risks facing humanity — and he’s unlikely to pass that up.

Yet at the same time, Modi has set a target for reducing emissions so low that the world’s third-largest polluter can meet it without committing to anything new.

A loader collects coal at the Goladi depot.

In September, Indian Power Minister Piyush Goyal said Western nations had “polluted the world for the last 150 years with cheap energy” and that India won’t pay for it.

To his credit, Modi boosted India’s renewable energy target by nearly five-fold after taking office in May 2014. That commitment lies at the heart of India’s emissions pledge.