Reporter: Allison Langdon
Producer: Gareth Harvey
Allison Langdon has just been to the gates of Hell.
A place, where right under your feet, under homes and roads, immense fires burn out of control, fuelled by enormous deposits of coal.
These fires are scarring the land and poisoning the people in a forgotten corner of India.
It's an environmental disaster and it's raged unchecked for close to a hundred years.
Now, over a million people are quite literally living on top of a firestorm.
BLOG: Read more about Allison Langdon's time in India here.
PHOTOS: See more from behind the scenes here.
STORY – ALLISON LANGDON: It is a place worthy of Dante’s inferno, where flames and toxic smoke billow from below - blazing coal seams that tear apart the earth itself. This is Jharia, in eastern India, where people cling to life in a place that reeks of death.
ASHOK: You’re looking at a tragedy unfolding. We are not able to do anything to save these people.
ALLISON LANGDON: For coal-miners, this resource-rich region is a land of opportunity. For anyone else, it’s hell. I can’t handle this smoke actually. I need to get out, it’s just too overwhelming. Jharia's is just one of thousands of coal seam fires burning across the globe. Together they pump billions of tons of toxic and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. But nowhere is it like Jharia, where there’s 60 square kilometres – an area the size of 12,000 football fields - of scorching earth. It’s when the sun drops and the fires raging just below the surface break through at countless points right across the countryside that this place really becomes a vision of hell. The thought of living here is unimaginable.
SAVITRI: You know, everyone has a story to tell, but it’s the same refrain. It’s just this helpless situation.
ALLISON LANGDON: Even seasoned journalists like Savitri Choudhary, who has accompanied us to Jharia, find this ignored corner of India incredibly confronting.
SAVITRI: Honestly, just - you know - you realise how privileged you are. And also it gives you a terrible sense of guilt because you know, you just - it’s horrible what they’re going through.
ALLISON LANGDON: Here, coal is both life and death. It’s big money for the state-owned, privately-run companies operating the mine. But there are few jobs for the unskilled locals. They must scavenge coal to survive. Mothers and daughters risk their lives scrambling down hillsides, snatching coal from slag dumps. And if they’re caught by the mine’s guards, they’ll be beaten.
VILLAGER: Oh, it’s a daily battle. It’s a daily battle, you know. They - it’s just a - you know, cat and mouse game that they play really.
ALLISON LANGDON: How much do they get for that coal when they sell it?
SAVITRI: Honestly they don’t get more than 20, 25 rupees.
ALLISON LANGDON: Which is - US dollars?
SAVITRI: 50 cents.
ALLISON LANGDON: For nearly a century, these blazes have wreaked relentless damage - as the coal underground burns to ash, the ground above completely collapses. No one can say how the fires started - it could have been a lightning strike on an exposed seam, or an early accident in the first rudimentary coal mines here. But whatever that spark was, a force of nature was unleashed that couldn’t be contained, and the people living above the inferno continue to pay a terrible price. Houses, entire villages, simply swallowed up by the earth.
SAVITRI: You know, I’ve come back here in two months and I’m amazed to see how quickly it’s moved. In the sense that there were houses here, they’ve all just disappeared, so it’s really moving in fast.
ALLISON LANGDON: The burning coal seams are not only taking peoples’ homes, but also their lives. The gas spewing from countless cracks and vents is a deadly toxic cocktail of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, methane, even mercury. The air is thick with the smell of sulphur and the ground itself is radiating heat. All around me the villagers are waking up to another day, beginning life in a place that’s killing them. Urmilla is probably about 40, but she looks far, far older – her body ravaged by the conditions here. All she has is her husband, and the coal they scavenge. But she once had a son. His name was Lalan Babu.
ALLISON LANGDON: Your son was here?
ALLISON LANGDON: This is all that’s left of Urmilla’s house. We’re standing in what was her son’s room. One night he went to bed and was killed by gases from the fire below.
URMILLA: It was winter. We did not have enough warm clothes, which is why they were sleeping in the room that was slightly warm because of the gasses. And they went to sleep and he just didn’t wake up.
ALLISON LANGDON: I mean, you would think that someone’s just come and dropped a bomb on that place.
ASHOK: Yes, exactly, that is how it looks.
ALLISON LANGDON: Ashok Agarwal was born here. He is educated, wealthy, and could easily leave. But he stays to fight for this forsaken place, and its people.
ASHOK: We are the people who are suffering. In fact there is a paradox - rich land and poor people. This is perhaps the richest land in the country and you see the poorest people here. So it’s a human tragedy.
ALLISON LANGDON: India’s burgeoning economy has an unquenchable thirst for cheap coal, and the mining companies are bound by few rules or oversight. Journalists – especially Western journalists – are refused real access. Filming undercover was the only way we could expose a tragedy that that many believe the mining companies have no interest in tackling.
ASHOK: They want these fires, they are encouraging these fires so that they can get hold of land.
ALLISON LANGDON: So you’re saying that the coal mining companies are lying when they say that they can’t put these fires out?
ASHOK: Yes, yes, they have been telling us blatant lies.
ALLISON LANGDON: Despite the threat to so many homes and livelihoods, Ashok has surprisingly few supporters. The power of the mining companies and the dependence on coal here is total. Even if the consequences of doing nothing may be catastrophic. So your whole town could disappear?
ASHOK: Yes, it could. It may be a losing battle, but all the same we are fighting, we are doing whatever can be done.
ALLISON LANGDON: Because this is no life, is it?
ASHOK: This is no life. See the worst type of life that you can - any individual - can have.