10 years after it investigated the condition of the Damodar,
Down To Earth revisits the river basin. Travelling through a
heavily industrialised belt rich in minerals, MANOJ NADKARNI
has at least 2 questions in mind: how has the river fared since
it was first written about in 1993? What shape is it in today?
Dhanbad town exists for one reason: coal. This much becomes
quickly clear to me. A fine layer of coal dust covers everything
in the hotel I have put up in, and the manager has assumed
I have something to do with the coal business. Why else should
I have come to Dhanbad? I tell him I am not interested in
coal, but in the river Damodar.
Damodar? But that's also full of coal. Touché. He
smiles: so you will be going to the Telmucho bridge? I nod.
He nods, too. It seems all pollution people, as he puts it,
Telmucho bridge is an hour's ride from Dhanbad. A minute
out of town and I am passing coalfields. Dhanbad is on the
edge of the Jharia coalfields.
It sprawls over 450 square kilometres (sq km) and is one of
India's biggest coalfields. A few more minutes and I pass
a BCCL (Bharat Coking Coal Limited) housing colony. Its inhabitants
have been asked to evacuate their houses because underground
mine fires have come too close for comfort.
From the bridge the river looks choked. On either side of
the main channel, as far as I can see, there are huge heaps
of loosely dumped earth. These heaps are called the 'overburden',
the upper layer of soil and rock removed in open-cast mining
to get to the coal below. Perched precariously, they certainly
seem to overburden the river - it requires a mere gust of
wind for some clods to freely tumble into the water; how must
it be like when it rains heavily, as it does in this region?
In open-cast mining, a massive pit is dug and coal removed
from the bottom, the pit being as much as a km wide. This
way of mining is considered more efficient in terms of the
coal freed, so more and more older deep mines are being converted
to open pits. The volume of overburden is at least as much
as the amount of coal mined; in Jharia alone, it now accounts
for 4.5 sq km of raw soil and rock.