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“Will the fire ever stop?”: In India’s Jharia coalfields, girls mine to survive

Words by Elle Kurancid, photography by Walaa Alshaer

As the sun sets, a group of girls in colourful saris perform an original dance routine near a rugged fire pit – where, come sunrise, they will already be mining the dirtiest of fossil fuels for up to 250 rupees (£2.70) per day. “When they dance, these girls feel there is something else in life other than burnt earth and toxic smoke,” reflects UAE-based, Egyptian photographer Walaa Alshaer. Last July, she captured stories of economic distress and creative expression in eastern India’s Jharia coalfields, the 110-square-mile site of some of the planet’s longest-burning fires and largest reserves of the high-demand nonrenewable. “They work, they play, they continue,” the photographer adds, “in the hope that one day the fire will stop.”

A view of Jharia’s Ghansadih Colliery, which is operated by Bharat Coking Coal Limited, a subsidiary of the world’s largest miner, the state-owned Coal India. Last year, the Indian government named poverty-stricken Jharkhand – home to Jharia’s coalfields – as the state most vulnerable to climate change. Near the remote village of Ghansadih, July 2022.

On their descent to a raging fire pit, these girls cross paths with heavy noxious fumes – carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide – spewing from the cracked earth. Most of the young workers the photographer met not only spoke of the skin and respiratory diseases besetting their communities, but also of the children who were killed in colliery accidents. July 2022.

A portrait of Anjali, 16, as she earns money for her struggling household. July 2022.

The coal-dust-stained hands of children at the end of their morning shift. July 2022.

A portrait of Savitri, then 16, after she tells the photographer that upon leaving home, she always covers half of her face, due to a colliery accident in which her clothing caught fire. In the village of Ghansadih, December 2016.

The feet of a grandmother named Kati, then 50, who collects coal on a regular basis. Near Ghansadih Colliery, December 2016.

Pinaki Roy is Jharia-born educator and founder of the Coalfield Children Classes, a free after-school initiative. About 100 young people attend the programs offered.

Anjali, one of the young people who scavenge for coal, attends a class at Karkend High School.

"My students lead harsh lives that are full of risks, but they still care about education and self-expression," says Roy, 55, pictured with students at one of four Coalfield Children Classes centers across Jharia — this one in the village of Ghansadih, about 500 feet from the local coal mine.

Roshni, Suman, Anjali, Radhika, and Suhani, between the ages of 15 and 21, rehearse on the roof of Mr. Roy’s home ahead of an awareness-raising event for the children of Jharia’s coalfields. July 2022.

Suman, Roshni, Suhani, Anjali, and Radhika gather in anticipation of their dance performance for the local community. July 2022.

Kajal, Ritu, Sapna, Sonali, Roshni, and Payel, between the ages of 14 and 18, perform their original dance routine. In Dobari Colliery, near the village of Sahanapahari, July 2022.

Suman, 21, rests outside her family home after a long day of work, classes, and dance rehearsals. For decades, Jharia’s surface and subsurface coal fires have threatened the homes of many tens of thousands of families, in part due to lethal sinkholes caused by land subsid- ence. In the village of Ghansadih, July 2022.

An evening view of Liloripathra village. “This underground fire has been burning for over a century,” says the photographer. “It crawls through the floors of homes, filling them with toxic fumes and causing some structures to collapse.” July 2022.

Anjali grips a chunk of the fossil fuel that both sustains and threatens her community and nation; meanwhile, the UN says, “The [climate] actions of the wealthiest developed and emerging economies simply don’t add up,” with global emissions at an “all-time high and rising.” In the Ghansadih Colliery, July 2022.


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