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Dhanbad Coalfield Documentary – The Hot as Hell

There are some things to be said about overlong films, whether they are fiction or documentaries: both in terms of for and against, they give us a long insight into the life and thinking of the director as much of the subject of their exploration. Paranjoy Guha Thakurta's two-and-a-half hour documentary on the coalfields of Dhanbad was porky but detailed – on some, not all, the aspects of a region much of which has been on subterranean fire for more than a century. He touches, and sometimes reflects, on all the relevant facets that go into the congeries of an intriguing subject: the status – or lack of it – of the coalminers; the tribals disenfranchised from their land and traditional livelihood, and the consequent growth of what the government calls "illegal coalmining"; the coal mafia (one of the most brutish and enduring of all the country's various gruppi criminali); the bureaucratic blindness of Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL), the parastatal and biggest mining entity in Dhanbad.


Hot as Hell is not close to Charles Urban's canonical A Day in the Life of a Coal Miner (1910), which is textbook study material today as a milestone in the documentary's evolution. Nor is it meant to be From the Shadows of Power (1990), produced and directed by Jean Donohue and co-produced by Fred Johnson, an award-winning documentary set in the coalfields of Appalachia, Wales and England. Hot as Hell is, in a sense, far more ambitious: it has dauntingly wider socioeconomic, political and sub-ethnic concerns, and, indeed, the bond of impervious criminality that binds them all together in a travesty of capitalism.


The Dhanbad collieries have developed into the smoking waste they are over the course of a century; the region's kismet was foretold when it was discovered that some of the best coking coal in India lay just under the surface. Subsequently, open-casting – which is different from strip-mining in that it leaves not gigantic conical holes in the land but hollows it out just beneath the surface, dooming it to infertility and later subsidence – stripped away the top layer of the land, denuding it over the course of almost a century. Hot as Hell is book-ended by Guha Thakurta declaring to the camera that the Dhanbad he is seeing now is very different from the Dhanbad he had seen as a much younger reporter 25 years ago, "and some things have changed but much hasn't".


Clearly, much hasn't, except for Jharia township, which – going by the camera's oft-repeated street-level night shots, has some blindingly glitzy multinational attire shops today, and even a glass-and-brass stacked-elevator mall – seems to have plenty of disposable capital. But this busy township, only differentiated from other convenience-occupancy hardscrabble townships across the nation by deep cracks on its roads leaking feathery smoke and heat from the slow-burn of the underground methane fires, feeds workers to the coalmines, is home to the bureaucrats and the mafia that run them, and sits so stolidly atop whole square kilometres of greed-making surface coal that the government and the BCCL have plans to relocate the township's 400,000 (current figure) inhabitants to regions whose location the film intriguingly did not seek to ascertain.


How the authorities will transport what will most certainly swell to an army of one million people by the cutoff date of 2017 from one of the country's most densely inhabited regions (Dhanbad district already has 1,167 persons per sq km) remains a mystery. If only to keep mining going at its current pace – even with the number of miners constantly decimated by new-fangled machinery – the government will have to allow thousands of miner 'wannabes' (a description tragic in this context) to pour into Dhanbad, negating the entire relocation exercise. The mafia, which has a near-monopoly over Dhanbad's coal economy because of its chokehold on these tens of thousands of indigents, will seek to scuttle the relocation, too: people here, who've already been beaten under, serve its will better than the newly-arrived would.


As the film shows, Dhanbad is home to people who have land ownership records going back to 1932, and each one of them is loath to leave a land that might have lost everything to the rapacious dynamics of fossil fuel extraction but is still their land, with their generational seal on it. What is being called the "world's biggest peacetime relocation programme" (as if it would be any different if it were a "wartime relocation programme") is probably among the worst follies of the modern Indian developmental model – as one of the retired coal officials admitted in the film – and it might just go the way of the Narmada dam displace-deport-and-damn fiasco.


Coupled with this is the fact, which every journalist knows and a very senior one, in particular, was quoted as confirming in the film, an almost unbreakable politician-mafia-bureaucrat nexus exists to undo all law in Dhanbad. And, as a deadpan interview in the film with a senior police officer in Dhanbad shows, the klutzes in khaki posted there are seriously compromised - a cop pays other, more senior, cops lakhs of rupees for a posting in the "Coal Capital" of India. Everyone except the miners and the tribals makes a little money. "A former CMD of BCCL was nicknamed as the golden deer. He set up two multi-crore industries near Delhi," says Gopal Agrawal of Jharia. ('The killing mines of Dhanbad',


The film doesn't go as far as naming names – except for those that are dead or have providentially become politically insignificant – but, as always with independent-minded filmmakers who have to work with the deterrents (usually financial) of establishmentarian oversight, Guha Thakurta manages to express by implication that which words might have jeopardised their being articulated at all: shots of the "palatial mansion"…"where Surya Deo Singh [the late mafia boss] used to live"; a long interview take of his son dressed in a spotless, starched white mul-mul kurta while his grimy hangers-on lounge around in an antechamber as gloomy as that of any mofussil GP's; a humongous, gleaming black-and-chrome Ford Endeavour SUV parked outside; a retired coal bureaucrat, now settled in Kolkata, mouthing himself silly absenting the mafia from any of Dhanbad's many sicknesses; the BCCL chief lathering the camera with smoothtalk claiming that much of everything is hunky-dory, and much of that which is not is, well, just smoke and ash; convoys of bicycles loaded with jute panniers, each packed with "hundreds of kilos of [stolen] coal" and pushed by straining, sweaty, stringy men for tens of kilometres to the "collection centre" run by the mafia; a bedridden miner breathing wrenchingly through lungs shot with coal miners pneumoconiosis.


This is Dhanbad today. "Prolonged exposure to coal dust causes coal miners pneumoconiosis (CMP)," wrote Stirling Smith ('Mining: blood on coal', Frontline, Volume 18 - Issue 13, Jun. 23-Jul. 06, 2001). "It is a very unpleasant disease. The lungs lose their natural flexibility and it becomes increasingly difficult to breathe. Simple tasks like walking up stairs become impossible. It is a slow and painful death from suffocation. There is no cure. The only steps are to remove the patient from exposure to dust in the early stages to prevent more severe damage.


"Official statistics reveal an average of 72 new cases of the disease a year between 1980 and 1994. This figure is simply not credible. Coal dust in India is no different from coal dust elsewhere in the world, nor are Indian miners' lungs different from the lungs of other miners in the world. In the UK, in the 1980s, the annual figure for new cases of CMP was more than 300 cases and the government is now paying out hundreds of millions of pounds in compensation to sick miners. Sample surveys in India have produced estimates as high as 40 per cent of the number of miners with CMP."


There is also a very short interview with the Tata Steel rep who, in his own words, has been in Dhanbad "for the past 30 years" and has neither seen nor heard of "corruption" or physical vulnerability beyond the usual. He says that Dhanbad is safer than "Hyderabad, where I come from". This short take comes towards the end of the series; there is no voiceover; the camera pans the idyllic landscaping of what might be the rep's residence and/or office. No more evidence is necessary that the private sector part of the coal industry will studiously keep its own counsel.


The rep's tact is hardly surprising. Tata Steel plans to acquire more mining leases from the government. The company currently owns six collieries in the Jharia division, split into the Jamadoba Group and the Sijua group. The former has a lease area of 5,508 acres and a production capacity of 1.5 million tonnes of prime coking coal.


Wherever Guha Thakurta comes up short, it is because he sometimes carries an excess baggage of butterflies. "In particular, documentary, because of its claim to objectivity, seems especially susceptible to the illusion that its practice is transparent," wrote Jane M Gaines ('Appalshop documentaries: Inventing and preserving Appalachia', Jump Cut, no. 34, March, 1989, pp. 53-63). What seems all too apparent here is that because the quintology was produced for India's government-owned television broadcaster, Doordarshan, some necessary informational opacity had to introduced to keep the vehicle of documentation from hitting any bureaucratic speedbreaker big enough to bust its axles. For instance, while section IV of the series dealt with the mafia that governs the Dhanbad coalfields, raking off between 40 and 70 per cent of mined coal, it only delves into the mafia's history: B P Sinha, who ran an oxymoron, virtually extinct today, known as a "benign dictatorship"; his Al Capone-like pupil, the late Surya Deo Singh ("Pehelwanji"), who is said to have been as ennobled in speech as he was immediate and brutal in his retributive reach, and who is reported to have had Sinha iced in his own palatial home. While the documentary tells us that two were the last of the open-pursed gangsters in Dhanbad, what it doesn't tell us is which individual, or what cartel, is ruling the coalfields now. Even in a somewhat vapid conversation with Surya Deo Singh's son, Guha Thakurta skirts asking the youngster, who obviously defends his father in generic sociopolitical hagiographic folderol, the all-important questions: Are you continuing your father's good works? If not you, then who?


Then, again, Guha Thakurta's trepidation is understandable: Dhanbad's dons have never been amenable to outsider curiosity. The number of journalists who have emerged bruised from incursions into Dhanbad's dark side constructs a tale of overeager folly. Another friend of mine who had gone to Dhanbad expressly to investigate its mafia takeover had had to flee in the dead of night when word got to him that various footsoldiers were scouring the city for him, guns out.


Perhaps Guha Thakurta was constrained by the fact that, this time round, he spent only five days in Dhanbad, talking up a whole range of people from journalists to politicians to BCCL authorities to a former labour contractor to – frustratingly few of these – the people most affected. He spoke to no miner and just a few locals, some of them reticent. (As a roundabout apology, perhaps, he let Manjira Dutta, who had produced Babulal Bhuiya ki Qurbani [1987], a disturbing, revelatory 70-minute short on a mine worker who was shot dead by the Central Industrial Security Force, speak for him when she said that she really had no idea of what might have befallen those who had chosen to speak in front of her camera, implying that this sort of candour could be perilous.)


Nor does Guha Thakurta adequately explain in the film the reason for the subterranean fires in the Dhanbad mines, some of which have been guttering for well over a century. The film does imply that the fires were caused by "unscientific mining" (meaning open-cast mining), but such a premise is scientifically debatable. Ideally, a geologist ought to have been spoken to, Landsat images of fires used (they are freely available), the rate of land subsidence calculated to determine how much of the region is vulnerable to subsidence and at what rate.


"Fires in coal seams of Jharia coalfield have been originated basically from spontaneous combustion [italics mine] occurring either underground or along the outcrops, and are restricted in Barakar formations with shallow depth of less than 40 m. Mainly top seams which are thick and therefore more prone to spontaneous heating fires have also been caused due to burning of bantulsi, dumping of hot ash in goafed [sic] out areas, illicit distillation in abandoned working, etc." ('Application of Landsat-TM Thermal Band and IRS-1A LISS II Imagery in Delineation of Coal Mine Fire in Jharia Coal Field', V K Srivastava, Remote Sensing Unit, Department of Applied Geophysics, Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad)


The film does mention that the fires are of methane gas origin, but goes no further than that cursory explanation. If methane were that incendiary, the country's cattle should be combusting every time they become flatulent, which is all the time. The explanation came from another source. On the deaths of 50 miners during underground explosions on September 6, 2006 at the Nagda mine of the Bhatdih colliery in Western Jharia, People's Democracy, the weekly organ of the CPI (M), wrote: "Methanometre for measurement of methane gas accumulation was defunct. After extraction of coal, it is mandatory to pack the holes with sand so that methane does not get accumulated in these holes. Contractors were appointed to supply sands. Due to high level corruption, on paper full quantity of sand was supplied by the contractors, but in actuality, the supply was less than half. As a result, many holes were not sand-packed allowing methane gas accumulation."


While there were shots of cupric miners walking bent through caverns, of mines that the BCCL had ostensibly "abandoned" but that were still being scoped by "illegal" miners (read: mostly tribals made destitute by the mafia and the authorities) for leftovers, of mines where workers had drowned, asphyxiated, been buried or incinerated – what was missing were statistics to buttress the narrative. Stats can lie in the hands of those who have something to hide; but in the proper hands, they can help rip the curtain apart.


The irony about Dhanbad is that it should have been the centre of mining-related safety regulations and R&D in the country. After all, as a Government of India Website says, "For administering the provisions of the Indian Mines Act, the mine Inspectorate was first created as Bureau of Mines Inspection on June 7, 1902 forming a part of the GSI (Geological Survey of India) in Calcutta. Later the name of the organisation was changed to Department of Mines in 1904 and its headquarters shifted to Dhanbad [italics mine] in 1908." From then to now, this centralisation of coal administration in Dhanbad hasn't made a whit of a difference to the area's inhabitants. Except after the Chasnala disaster in 1975, in which 375 workers were drowned to death, not a single official has been pulled up for culpability in the absence of mining safety.


There are today more than 594 coal mines in India, a vast majority of them open-cast. The death rate for every 1,000 miners in 1894 was 3.04. According to a government Website, "The fatality rate in respect of per thousand persons employed in coal mines fell from a high of 1.33 on a ten-yearly average during 1931-40 to 0.33 during 1991-99. Unfortunately, however, there has been no appreciable reduction in fatal accident rates in coal mines during the last two decades."


This appalling lack of "appreciable reduction" is why it is so important that this film be seen. That it was the government that admitted its laxity and has supported the documentary could be either a sign of its acceptance of some culpability - or of its realisation that swallowing some criticism gamely can cushion the really hard bits yet to come.

Kajal Basu