Unreported World, as brief as it is and shown before the watershed as it is – and therefore often a rather sanitised version of the reportage – takes us to places that the world otherwise largely ignores and/or knew nothing about, and this was the case for me in last night’s programme which was presented by reporter Aidan Hartley. I have a little more to say about the scheduling at the end of this article, but for now, on to my review of it…
As I said, I had absolutely no idea about the coalmines in India, but as this documentary revealed, they play a huge part in the economy of some of the poorest of all India’s communities, and those featured last night were particularly wretched.
Villages, that would be more aptly called shanty towns, were precariously balanced upon a literally burning foundation of coalmines, the seams of which spewed forth noxious fumes and gases and where the heat on the surface – due to uncontained and uncontrollable fires beneath – could set light to paper on contact, as Aidan demonstrated…
And as Aidan reported, moving away from these horrendously dangerous areas is not an option for those who live there all their lives; they rely on the coal for their livelihood, and a poor one it is at that, barely managing to keep families going.
They are paid so little – or can’t get a job in the mines – that they have to scavenge from the red-hot slag heaps. It’s a place where tiny, barefoot children, as well as their adult family members, toil in desperate heat from dawn ‘til dusk for what amounts to around £1 a day – just enough to provide one meal for their families.
These families suffer any number of respiratory conditions and many die young due to either accidents in the totally unsafe mines or as a result of the poisonous fumes and smoke that fill the air around them.
One desperately sad scene saw Aidan himself clearly very moved by the sight of an eight year old boy who had to ‘roll’ huge and heavy blocks of coal back to his home under the raging sun while walking on superheated ground. It would’ve taken the poor child hours, but he had to do it; his family needed the money and in this remote part of North East India, things we in the West take for granted for our children – such as an education, healthcare and not needing them to work from the moment they can walk – simply aren’t part of the equation…
If you can move, you can work – no matter how tiny and vulnerable you may be – and you must or you and your family will starve.
Aidan Hartley and director Edward Watts began their investigation into this hell on earth in the Jharia coalfields in Jharkand state, where, as I mentioned, the air is filled with smoke and poisonous gas as fires smoulder in the ground, on the surface and in fact, all around them. The flames are from underground coal seams which are oxidising, causing them to spontaneously combust over an area of several hundred square kilometres, and this has been going on for over a hundred years since the mines were first exposed to the air that causes said oxidation.
However, these vast open cast and underground mines produce hundreds of millions of tonnes of coal which supply the electricity and steel industries but also provide the locals with work and the opportunity to ‘steal’ from the slag heaps to sell for other families to cook with.
One young girl who Aidan met with – Dolly – told him that she works every day of the year gathering coal. Walking shoeless across sharp stones and hot coals, she also told Hartley that she makes less than a pound a day and, like the rest of her family, she’s never been to school.
Aidan also met a woman who told him that her husband and one of her daughters were killed by respiratory illnesses and now, she herself is very sick and her surviving daughter is suffering regular nosebleeds. The ‘house’ they live in is falling apart due to subsidence caused by the mines but she, like the rest of the villagers, simply can’t afford to move to a safer place.
Hartley also met with the state-owned Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL) company which runs the mines and was told that the company “try their best” to make living conditions as safe and comfortable as possible for their workers, but Aidan was shown a BCCL housing scheme where families of up to ten live in one bedroom houses.
In another town, Kasunda, a former resident told Hartley that two years ago, the ground beneath his home simply collapsed and several houses – and their residents – were engulfed by the fires below. He and his family survived but his brother and six other members of his family were all killed so what was once a thriving place with 500 houses, a school, and a temple is now a ghost town.
Here’s what Aidan wrote of his visit to the coalmines featured in last night’s programme…
“I have never witnessed anything like India’s coalmine fires. Two images will always stick in my mind. One is the sight of an entire cliff of coal on fire, millions of tonnes of coal burning out of control with red and blue flames in the smoggy twilight. The scale of the fires — caused by coal seams heating up on exposure to open air due to poor mining practices until they burst into flames – is frightening as they spread across 360 square kilometres of Jharia’s coalfields in Jharkand state.
The other is when we saw Devanand, an eight-year-old boy, rolling two heavy lumps of coal across a wasteland. Too poor to go to school, he was pushing the coal home for his mother to cook with — but there were no houses for miles around and he was making such slow progress it was agonising to watch.
And that was the paradox of the story. India wants to extract as much coal as it can to drive its economy and drag citizens out of abject poverty.
But are people like Devanand victims or beneficiaries of this master plan? Multitudes of local people here once lived as farmers. They were poor but they had dignity and now – well, many of them are just poor. And now India’s state coal mining company wants to move 500,000 people out of the fire-hit area of Jharia, the largest migration of people in India since Partitition.
India already extracts 400 million tonnes of coal a year and that figure is set to increase. While India has a right to economic growth, this surely does not excuse the country from allowing coalfields to burn unchecked, an act of extraordinary environmental vandalism mirrored in other countries including the USA.
At a time when the world debates how to urgently cut carbon emissions, the sheer scale of the inferno alarmed me. I wondered what the point of putting a little windmill on your home is, or fussing about your personal carbon footprint, when there’s this going on.
Shooting the film was a physical ordeal. Producer Ed Watts and I would come out of the mines each day blackened head to foot with coal dust. The searing heat of the fires and poisonous fumes scoured our lungs and smarted the eyes. We went through three cameras because clouds of dust kept clogging them up.
It astonished me that people had to live in this hell, where so many of those toiling as coal scavengers and miners were children. They suffer terrible illnesses due to the pollution and life expectancy is shorter than most parts of India.
But at the same time I found the beauty of the locations stunning. We’d be filming in clouds of smog and dust and out of the murk would emerge a line of women in brightly coloured saris, walking out of the mines and into a village with golden straw haystacks and waggle-eared water buffalo chewing the cud among cosy mud houses.
The forests being eaten up by the coalmines are the places where the Buddha lived and found enlightenment 2,400 years ago. This is the fast vanishing home of India’s indigenous tribal people – and until recently it was a natural paradise. The name ‘Jharkand’ means ‘land of trees’ and it was once full of tigers and wildlife. This is now just a memory as trees, hills, rivers and springs are pulverised by the bulldozers.
It was a privilege to make this film about an issue for a country at such a crossroads.”
I personally believe Unreported World should be given a significantly longer time to allow for more in-depth reporting and slot at a more appropriate time – after 9pm basically – so that the true horrors which we don’t currently get to see, given the scheduling of the programme, can be revealed and then maybe, just maybe, people watching will be so moved by what they see, something can be done to help the weekly parade of the world’s most blighted citizens and communities.
The Unreported World teams travel to some of the most dangerous, impoverished and desperate places in the world, often placing themselves in significant danger to bring us the ‘hidden’ or ignored horrors that exist in the world, yet they’re given a paltry 25 minutes at 7:35pm to present their findings, and they can’t show us the full ‘truth’ for fear of offending the censors.
So here’s my plea to Channel 4; give this excellent programme at least an hour and give it an appropriate time slot, then, as I say, maybe more people will take more notice of what is an outstanding series of reports and which deserves to be seen by vastly more of us than it is, especially given that it clashes with Coronation Street!