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SENSORY OVERLOAD

Inside India’s coal country

The Dipka Extension mine near Hardi Bazar in Korba, Chhattisgarh, India.
Harsha Vadlamani for Quartz
The Dipka Extension mine near Hardi Bazar in Korba, Chhattisgarh, India.
  • Akshat Rathi
By Akshat Rathi

Senior reporter

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

In Korba, coal is everywhere—even in the air. 

We arrived in the city by train in mid-September, which is typically close to the end of the monsoon season in this part of the Indian state of Chhattisgarh. But the deluge hadn’t abated yet. Instead, we were warned that rainfall had picked up in recent weeks. 

Heavy rain should have precipitated the pollution in the air—the tiny particles of dust, coal, and organic matter created by extracting coal from open-to-air mines or produced when coal is burned in inefficient power plants. But the sulfurous, mildly irritating smell was inescapable.

Harsha Vadlamani for Quartz
Wagons loaded with coal wait at the yards in Korba Railway Station.

As we drove from the train station to the hotel, it was clear the residents didn’t mind. Coal is life in Korba. The city’s 300,000 residents are almost completely dependent on coal and its allied industries for their livelihoods. 

Coal mining began in Korba in 1941. Today, the city serves as the hub of four coal mines, five coal power plants, and an aluminum smelter. The mines in the region produce more than 70 million metric tons each year—about 10% of the country’s total production. Together, the pollution from these industries has put Korba third in the ranks of “critically polluted” cities in India, according to a 2015 government report.

Harsha Vadlamani for Quartz
Muslims offer free food to passers-by on the occasion of Muharram—one of four sacred months in Islamic calendar. Above them, an open-air conveyor belt carries coal to the Hasdeo Thermal Power Station in Darri near Korba.
Harsha Vadlamani for Quartz
The conveyor belt carries coal from a nearby mine to the Hasdeo Thermal Power Station in Darri near Korba. It is one of five coal power plants in the area, which together generate 5% of all electricity in India.
Harsha Vadlamani for Quartz
A cooling tower used by the Hasdeo Thermal Power Station in Darri near Korba. The plume emitted from its opening is only steam—but the smokestack belching pollution isn’t too far away.

Those living close to power plants said they suffer the consequences of coal, but don’t always reap the rewards. Every day, they wake up to a layer of coal ash deposited on surfaces exposed to the air. And even though the power plants continue running, neighborhoods in the area frequently experience blackouts.

Harsha Vadlamani for Quartz
Dr Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Thermal Power Station as seen from the Patharripara neighborhood in Korba. About one in four men in the area work at the power plant.
Harsha Vadlamani for Quartz
Residents of Patharripara neighborhood in Korba wait to resume religious festivities during a power outage, as the chimney of a coal power plant blows out smoke in the background. They were still waiting when we left the area half an hour later.
Harsha Vadlamani for Quartz
The cooling towers of the Dr Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Thermal Power Station as seen from the Patharripara Basti neighbourhood in Korba, Chhattisgarh, India.

All the coal mines around Korba are owned by Coal India Limited, a majority state-owned company that sets the price of coal in the country. These mines are enormous. Dipka mine, for example, is approximately 4 km (2.5 miles) wide and 4 km long; the Gevra mine next to it is about 8 km wide and 5 km long. Both are many tens of meters deep. Villages are scattered within walking distance of the edges of the mines.

As we walked around the Dipka mine near Hardi Bazar in Korba, a government employee told us to stop in our tracks. “Look,” he said pointing towards a location barely 100 meters away from us, “they are getting ready.” He’d noticed workers moving to a safety point, preparing for one of the explosions that mines often use to loosen the coal seam and ease extraction. Within minutes of his warning, we felt the earth shake underneath our feet. Milliseconds later, we heard a loud bang that echoed around the mine.

Harsha Vadlamani for Quartz
A stitched panorama of Dipka Extension mine near Hardi Bazar in Korba, Chhattisgarh, India.

These explosions can sometimes light a fire at the mine’s surface, which can spread further into the mine. Extinguishing such fires with water becomes impossible without a lot of expensive effort. The upshot is that almost every mine we visited had perpetual fires in one corner or another. Miners said they simply work around them.

Harsha Vadlamani for Quartz
Seen from a distance, the orange embers of the perpetual fire in Dipka coal mine near Hardi Bazar, Korba. The fire likely extends further underground.
Harsha Vadlamani for Quartz
Workers laying a power line carry the team’s lunch boxes at the Dipka Extension mine near Hardi Bazar in Korba. Coal mines have to run electric pumps to drain out any water collected at the bottom of the open pits.
Harsha Vadlamani for Quartz
Kids play hopscotch at Hardi Bazar in Korba, Chhattisgarh, India.
Harsha Vadlamani for Quartz
When the government wants to acquire new land for mining, it pays a higher price for land that already has established dwellings. These walls were built by villagers near the Dipka Extension mine expansion in Hardi Bazar, Korba to take advantage of that policy.

We spotted many mine workers taking small bags of coal back home for use in cooking, which they squirrel away without punishment. The coal found in the Korba region is high in ash content, which means it takes a while to heat up and burn red hot. To get fires going, villagers and poor city dwellers use a burner called a “sigri”—a contraption with burning coal at the top and openings to draw air from the bottom. At first, the burning coal produces vast amounts of thick smoke with an acrid smell, so villagers often keep their cooking outside the house.

Harsha Vadlamani for Quartz
A city resident carries a bag of coal back home on his bicycle in Korba.

As if the pollution from the mines and power plants wasn’t enough, sigri smoke makes matters worse. A 2011 study found child mortality and diseases connected to air pollution occur at higher rates in Korba region than the national average. Even though the smoke is clearly undesirable—indoor pollution kills more people in India than outdoor pollution—it’s more economical to use the free coal than to buy expensive gas cylinders.

Harsha Vadlamani for Quartz
A coal-fired stove, known locally as a sigri, outside a small eatery near Kusmunda in Korba.

Two weeks after we left Korba, I got a message from a source: The Dipka coal mine we had visited was suspending all production. Incessant rain had caused the Lilagar river to abruptly change direction and flood the mine. As the muddy water cascaded down, it became a black waterfall that gobbled up everything in its way—like Satan destroying his own lair.

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