Photos of the Indian Mining Town That's Been on Fire for 100 Years

Mining in the town of Jharia has caused widespread pollution and illness, as well as a number of injuries and deaths from workers and locals falling into open pits of fiery coal.

Beginning this Friday, students on the MA Photography course at the London College of Communication will be exhibiting their final projects. There was no specific brief, but the title chosen for the show—"In the Forest of Things"—is inspired by a quote from journalist Ryszard Kapuściński, in which he states that, to tell authentic stories, one must "[penetrate them] as deeply as possible." We spoke to a few of the photography students about their chosen case studies and will be running one interview a day in the run-up to the opening of the show.

This year will mark a century since fires began perpetually burning under the Indian mining town of Jharia. Caused by the collapse of deep-lying coal mines, the town is now constantly filled with toxic fumes, with the pollution causing deaths in Jharia as well as nearby towns and villages. Injuries or fatalities from workers falling into the pits of fiery coal are also common.

Mining companies in the area have been battling for years to stem the fires, with minimal success. As well, any progress made often fails to impress the locals because of their built-up resentment over the improper work practices that have led to these deaths and the displacement of an estimated 100,000 families in the vicinity of Jharia.

I spoke to photographer Seb Heseltine, who visited the town in 2015, about the realities of life and work in the region.

VICE: What brought your attention to Jharia?
Seb Heseltine: Well, I've always been fascinated with learning about other cultures, so when it came time to prepare for our final project I had this kind of naive idea to document somewhere that was totally foreign to me. Over the year I began to really appreciate the work of Steve McCurry, especially his work in India.

So when I began looking into a subject, I kind of targeted my efforts into an industrial part of India, due to some discussions as to whether India should be labeled as a developing country or a developed country. From there, I learnt about how vital coal currently is to India and the complex situation happening in Jharia at the moment.

So was your main motivation to raise awareness, or purely to document what was happening for posterity?
Well, the area had been documented quite a lot up to 2010 and in 2012, when the local government began moving people whose homes were at risk from the underground fires into some of the rehabilitation homes—but I couldn't find many details on whether there were any developments. And as 2016 marks 100 recorded years of fires, I couldn't shake the feeling of wanting to investigate for myself.

What challenges did you face while taking the photos?
I'd say one of the key challenges I faced was actually trying to photograph some of the mining areas and the places where some of the fires were burning. I wouldn't be granted a journalist visa because it's not a situation that the local government want documented, and the situation isn't covered in the local press.

So you think there's perhaps an element of government suppression here?
Yes, I believe so. The police commissioner of the state actually phoned my fixer out of the blue and said I wasn't allowed to take any more photos of coal after my second week. Guards for the mining corporations are told to keep an eye out for photographers, and locals are actually paid to inform on photographers. That's why my fixer received a phone call.

Which moments stick with you most from your time out there?
I heard many stories of people falling into the flames. A week before I arrived, a guard for BCCL Mining had fallen into the flames and died near the town of Dhanbad. It was also difficult seeing the family of one of the children I photographed; the child had severe burns around his body, and the wounds would get infected from the insects and lack of medical resources they needed.

The locals of Bokahapadi are scared of the toxic gases and fires next to their village, but they have no option but to stay there because scavenging for coal brings in the livelihood they need to send their children to school and to eat. If they go to the relocation camps [as of July, 2015, mining company BCCL has built accommodation for 2,500 of its 15,000 workers] they will have to travel longer distances and therefore not make as much to provide for their families. And the people already living in those camps are very unhappy with their living situation.

How would you like to see the problem addressed?
Ideally, I would really hope to see the local government paying more attention to families in need with financial aid, reimbursing them for what they've lost, and having the the mining company BCCL give medical aid to those who've suffered from injuries from the unstable land. BCCL is one of the key mining companies in the area. I spoke to one of the main protesters from Jharia, Ashock, who stopped teaching physics at a local university to protest full time against BCCL. He believes the BCCL safety standards are not good enough and that other companies, such as TATA, have very few issues with spreading fires.

[In 2012, BCCL said they had reduced the affected area of fiery coals from 3.4 square miles to 0.84 square miles.]

What is the photo of the x-ray about?
I went to one of the local hospitals and met with Dr. Ashutosh Kumar and some of the other people working there, and he spoke of the long-term ramifications of working in the conditions that the locals and miners face. That image is an x-ray of a local suffering from pneumoconiosis [black lung], a disease that often effects people working in mines with no safety equipment, after prolonged periods of breathing in coal dust. Dr. Kumar stated the average life expectancy of locals who have worked in the mines to be around 55.

See more photos from Seb's project, as well as the final projects from other photographers on his course, at the LCC MA show, open from 10AM to 5PM, Monday to Saturday, from January 15 to 23, at the London College of Communication.