A warning even before you read this…this is not about any book. It’s not about INDIAreads or the online world. This post is about our world, the one in which we live and I am writing it because I couldn’t help myself….
I just saw Paranjoy Guha Thakurta’s documentary, Hot as Hell. It’s based on Jharia, the town beneath which rage 70 coal fires, the town which has a population of over a million, the town which can go up in flames or collapse any day, the town where I was born. The documentary left me shaken. So much so that I could not watch it in one go. The images that flashed by were familiar. It was like revisiting my childhood; only the despair, the accidents, the helpless faces were missing. Or perhaps I was too young to notice, blissfully unaware in my safe little world. I have no memories of Jharia except the theatre where we went to see a hindi blockbuster or some old neighbours we visited. All my recollections are of Dhandbad, the city adjacent to Jharia. That’s where my maternal family moved soon after I was born. It’s not that I did not know of the coal mafia then or of the abject poverty in the region. Year after year, during summer vacations on the train journey to Dhanbad or subsequently when we ventured outside the city for picnics, I saw thousands of people barely able to survive. Along the road, I saw things covered in white. People sleeping on the roadside with sheets to keep out the flies, I thought. Stupid. Naive. Age was my only excuse. Years later, I learnt they were corpses of people who had been killed by the naxals and other armed groups. I had been shocked then. Shaken, to realize that places I frequented as a child were now out of bounds as they were naxal haunts. It didn’t make sense because till the age of 15 when I visited Dhanbad every summer, all I thought about was the fun times spent with cousins, Rajinder ki chaat, Caroline’s pastry, the elderly tailor who stitched our dresses. Even the people along the road to Parasnath, selling arrows, lances and knives didn’t bother me. Yes, all my memories were happy ones, except one. One which had left me so shaken that after a lot of angst and anger, after feeling completely defeated for I could not change anything, I had buried it. I don’t even remember where I kept the couple of pictures that my dad had taken. Pictures of me wearing a helmet, a torch and a belt, getting on to the carriage that would take me deep into the bowels of the earth, into the coal mines. To the horror of my family I had insisted on the trip. No, I was not driven by any altruistic or revolutionary zeal. I just wanted to see a mine, to see where the people who I saw on the streets of Dhanbad worked. So after non stop pleading, cajoling and threatening for 2 summers, finally they gave in. I was in school and so my dad came to Dhanbad to take me to the mines. No one else was willing to do so.
As soon as the makeshift lift – 8 rickety wooden planks tied together and fixed on a steel frame, there were no walls – landed, I whipped my head around in confusion. It was completely dark. The only light came from the top of the hole. Then, one of the accompanying engineers switched on the torch on my helmet. Whatever you do, never take off that helmet even for a second, I was warned. Excited, I began to move but the engineer practically shouted in alarm. “You have to follow me. Please stay close to the walls and move very carefully.” So we moved into what resembled a cave. I had always been in love with Enid Blytons and this, to me, was a real adventure. The air was reasonably cool and there was water trickling in at some places along the wall. But I did not worry about the mine being flooded suddenly. That happened only in novels. I looked around and saw some tracks. “For the cars that carry the coal out. Be careful, most workers loose limbs when they are hit by the chains of the car,” our guide warned. I remember being bewildered then because I saw no workers. I heard sounds – whispers, hammering, the occasional laughter, but saw no one. When I asked the engineer where the workers were, he looked uncomfortable. But I had to see them at work. That was the point of the visit. So the guy very reluctantly led us into a narrow passage. I almost choked. The air was unbearably hot and heavy. I felt as if I was in a furnace. I still remember that feeling of being stifled. I think I turned claustrophobic that day. And then I saw the workers, chiseling away, lifting the coal. None were wearing helmets. It was too hot. Besides when they needed to rest, they perched on their helmets. On seeing visitors, a few hurriedly tried to strap on the protective headgear. I later learnt that the passage through which we had entered was reserved for officials and the few odd visitors. That was where the cool air came in from. The passages where the miners worked were boiling. I remember hurriedly trying to get out of the mine. After that I spent a lot of time arguing with my uncle, with others around me about the inhuman conditions in the mine. When it didn’t make any difference I forgot about it. It was easier. Subsequently I visited workers colonies or the poorer neighbourhoods of Dhanbad but I never asked to visit a mine. My family moved out of Dhanbad and the mines, out of my consciousness. About the underground fires, I was blissfully unaware. I had never heard about them, never noticed the wisps of smoke.
It was during my years at the Planning Commission that I first heard about the danger Jharia was in. I was shocked. How could I, an educated journalist, not have noticed something so important? How could I be so cocooned in my own world as to ignore everything else? I remember Syeda mentioning that someone had told her to visit the mines to see how much has been done to ensure safety of the workers. I told her about my visit. We decided we would visit Dhanbad and Jharia; go down into the mines and see if things had changed. The trip never happened. Then I saw this film. I am still appalled. To be honest I haven’t finished watching it. I could not. Not because it is full of burning people and mutilated bodies. No, there is none of that. In fact most of the scenes could be from any bustling town of the country. And then you notice the smoke curling out of the ground, right next to the guy who is changing the tyre or the child who is picking the coals. The ground beneath the city is burning and it is not a natural disaster. It is not even an inadvertent error on the part of a worker. It is the result of decades of human greed. The result of unplanned, unscientific mining carried out with the singular purpose of raking in the maximum moolah. Not even when they realized the consequences of their activities, when the workers began to be gassed and lives were lost, did the coal mafia stop to consider. Lives were inconsequential. They did not even remember that they were living in the same city which could collapse into the burning pit any day. Can human beings really be so insensitive? So greedy? Soo selfish? Do human lives matter so little? The workers go into the mines knowing they might never come back. They have no choice. They have to risk it to make sure their kids don’t go hungry. They might come out of the mine alive, but if they don’t go in, they know they won’t have anything to survive on. With the fires, the mines are not working to their full capacity. Many have lost jobs. They pilfer. They dig holes and take from the earth whatever they can find. Theft? Maybe. A disaster in the making? Definitely. But what choice do they have? Just like the residents of Jharia. They know their lives are in danger. They are suffering from numerous health problems and yet they refuse to move out to the new areas identified by the government. Why? What compels them to continue to live atop an inferno? I do not know. What I do know is that if we, in our greed, have destroyed so many lives, what right do we have to sit and take decisions for the Jarawa or the Upper Bonda? They may not live in air conditioned rooms or attend B Schools and earn hefty pay packets but they live in harmony with nature and with each other. They are happy, and more importantly, till we intruded into their worlds, their happiness was not at the cost of others. Is this what we want them to become? Opportunistic, indifferent humans who will stop at nothing to pocket that extra wad of notes. And how did we become this way? Is life really a zero sum game? Does our happiness, our comfort always have to be at the expense of another – be it the thirteen year old who some employ shamelessly in their homes or the workers who are gassed in the coal mines? I know all is not lost, I know there are people doing excellent work. I know change is happening. I have seen it, documented some of it. But at times, I grow despondent. Because too much needs to be done. Do we have enough time? Do we have enough will? Do we have enough hands?