Underground coal fires that have burned for nearly a century in the state of Jharkhand, have become an election issue in India's month-long vote, which concludes next week.
More than 400,000 people live precariously above an underground inferno in Jharia, a poverty-stricken area about 300 kilometres northwest of Calcutta that boasts some of India's richest coal deposits.
Subterranean fires have been raging here since 1916, and are believed to cover about 17 square kilometres, the Indo-Asian News Service reports. So the people here live in danger from toxic fumes and fire pits that form in the ground as coal seams turn to ash and collapse. Dozens have died and many more have lost their homes when the ground has given way underneath them.
Officials are proposing a relocation plan for the residents, the news service reports, but pamphlets have been distributed in the area urging voters to support political parties that promise to put out the fires, not move the residents. Putting out the fires is very difficult and involves digging trenches or stowing sand into coal seams to create firebreaks.
Many people living near the coalfields oppose relocation because although it would put them at a safe distance from the toxic fumes, it would also put them too far from the slag heaps where they mine coal chunks to sell. Residents of some hard-hit areas are slated to move this summer.
The government here has been heavily criticized for failing to take action sooner. "In fact, slowly the fire is crawling under these houses and one by one these houses are burning and people living in those houses are being forced to move out, to migrate, and without any alternatives for their habitat, for their livelihood," says T.N. Singh of the Centre for Eco-friendly Mining Alternatives. "The coal is being extracted by industry and industry must have some responsibility to take care of those people who are suffering because of those fires."
Rajiv Agarwal, a local doctor, says the coal fires are having serious effects on the residents' health, and even shortening their life expectancy.
"In today's world, nobody deserves to stay in such atmosphere," he said. "Everybody deserves to have at least a healthy life. But nothing is being done."