60 Minutes blog

Allison Langdon - Walking on fire

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This job takes you to some of the most spectacular places on the planet, but it also takes you to some of the most confronting corners of the world. Jharia, in far eastern India, is one of those places. For almost a century, the coal fields here have been burning out of control and the people who live above them face the very real danger that the ground beneath them will one day collapse into the inferno below, taking their homes and often lives.

What I found most alarming is that the authorities know what is happening in Jharia, they have watched entire villages disappear into the earth, yet they do nothing. The reason is simple - greed. As each village vanishes, the mining companies move in and mine the coal below.

Local businessman Ashok Agarwal is one of the few voices speaking out for his people. He’s an extraordinary man. Ashok is wealthy and could easily pick up and move his family to another city, but instead he stays and fights – and that has made him some powerful enemies. He believes what is happening in Jharia is a human tragedy.

What’s so tragic is that even as poor families watch their homes being devoured by the fires they do not leave. Stealing coal from the mines is how they make their money. I watched children as young as five wait for the security guards to turn their backs before scrambling down hillsides to steal clumps of coal. Many have been killed in the process but it’s the only way they can make money. A huge bag of coal, which must be carried long distances on their backs to the markets, is sold for 50 US cents. Death and sickness is part of everyday life here, the poisonous gas that seeps up through the cracks in the ground can quickly overcome you, as we found out. At one point, the entire team, which included producer Gareth Harvey, cameraman Richard “Dickie” Malone, sound recordist David “Tangles” Ballment and I, were overcome by the poisonous mix of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, methane and mercury. We felt nauseous, dizzy and our heads throbbed – and to think the people of Jharia live with this every single day.

No-one really knows how the fires started but what is known is that the state-owned, yet privately run, companies that operate the mines have no desire to stop them. If the fires burning underground engulf the city of Jharia, it simply gives the companies more land to mine for coal, and that is what Ashok is fighting against. He wants to stop his town from disappearing off the map. It is almost beyond comprehension that a government would not do all in its’ power to stop a city of more than a million people being swallowed up by raging coal seam fires, yet that is certainly what appears to be happening.

Clearly, we wanted to gain access to one of the many mammoth open-cut mines surrounding Jharia but Ashok had warned us that journalists, particularly those from the West, were forbidden. Some creative thinking was required. The story my producer Gareth Harvey and I came up with was that we were university graduates writing a book on coal seam fires. We’re not sure how, but one of the mining companies bought our story and invited us to see the mine the very next day. Being driven deep down into the pit of the mine was like stepping into another universe. We could see the huge cracks in the ground and could only watch in amazement as huge machinery ate into the burning coal. The mining directors even made jokes when we queried the danger of the burning coal seam fires.

Jharia is one of the most depressing cities I have ever been to. I left feeling frustrated, angry and a little overwhelmed. As Ashok told me, his city is a paradox, “rich land and poor people,” he said. “This is perhaps the richest land in the country and you see the poorest people here.”

I had never heard of the town of Jharia before I started researching this story – and I knew nothing of the coal seam fires that burn out of control there – and quite frankly that scares me because, if the world isn’t paying attention, then nothing will be done.

User comments
Watching this the other night saddened me soo much......we just don"t know how lucky we are....Makes you sick...how these people in desperate need are getting ignored by their government...shame on them....they should be thrown in the fire pits!!!!
If we gave people private property rights and the government upheld and defended them (which is 1 of there 2 only jobs) this sort of invasion and cruel and abhorrent thing would not happen to these poor people. as walter block tells us the governments only job to to protect our life, liberty and property. these people have been failed on all three. private property rights leads to the environment and people being protected!
Hi I felt the same as Allison about this story tonight but now what?? I researched the net, but still as frustrated ..how does one help these people ? Is anything set up ? If not maybe some insignificant and spoilt soul like me can start something? Id love to obtain more info Allison please if you can assist? regards and keep up the great reporting. Tracey
After watching this story I did some research of my own and was horrified to learn that coal fires are burning in no less than ten countries around the world, Australia included. The worst offender being China. There is a town in Pennsylvania USA called Centralia which is a virtual ghost town because of the coal fires burning beneath it. I am amazed that this is the first I have heard of this problem and it seems very obvious to me, and I am no scientist, just a concerned citizen, that the world's major pollution problems are caused by these fires, and unless something is done to extinguish them, the planet is in BIG trouble.
Concerning the mixture of gaseous compounds listed during the segment. I waited in vain to hear whether hydrogen sulphide (internationl spelling sulfide) would be mentioned. I do not see it in the notes above. Exposure to this gas can result in asphyxiation as a fellow-student in my chemistry class discovered in University days in Armidale. After fairly short exposure to this so-called 'rotten egg gas', the human recognition of its presence fades away and not long after this happens, an unconscious state follows. The son who died during sleep could possibly have been a victim of this gas. [Bogle-Chandler case,gases from rotting plants in L.C. river] Sulfur dioxide was mentioned and where this and hydrogen sulfide are present together, they react to produce steam and relatively harmless sulfur fumes which condense below 445 degrees Celsius on rocks as a yellow powder. I did not notice any such encrustations in the TV session so I am not really expecting a heavy presence Bob R.
This story has moved me deeply. Wasn't there some way that you could have conclude your story by asking us Aussies to help? Your story and the undercover effort was great but bringing awareness is one thing and hope it works is the other. What is the little part that we, fortunate ones living in this country can do, to make any difference for these poor people? Thank you for your story.
Thank God we live in Australia, where the careful management of coal seam fracking, will never see this happen to us ! This is a snap shot of what our future is going to look like ! 60 minutes please expose coal seam fracking for what it really is !!!
Sponsoring via World Vision and Kiva seems such a small thing to do from the comfort of my clean, well lit home, I live in hope that educating young women will eventually bring change. Your images brought me to tears, and led me to wonder how Australian mining magnates can argue that overseas mining operations only have to pay workers a few dollars a day. .. as if that's a good thing! Let's bring back child labour too? Not mention the environmental disaster. I do hope your reporting makes a difference, I don't know how those in charge can sleep at night.

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