Burning Earth

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Six year old, Babu is a coal scavenger. With the assistance of adults he burns the retrieved coal in order to make it smokeless and sellable on the market. With no access to education and a childhood in a town that sits above over 60 underground dires, many children like Babu survive this way.

Words || Mridula Amin

Coal has always been a political topic in Australia and it seems a strong economy always wins out over logic. But economy has always been about satisfying limitless desires with limited resources. I wanted to find a place on Earth that had finally reached its limit as a consequence of a decision humans made a century ago. I found Jharia – a town where people are clutching to coal, as the environment around them succumbs to flames.

The mines were like Dante’s Inferno, a post-apocalyptic film set – flames encircling everything and houses crumbling into the ground. It’s a lethal gas zone that has been on fire for the last 100 years, yet you can find homes filled with grandchildren right next to gas crevices. At night, like clockwork the coal trucks would drive past burning fires to make their deliveries one by one. In the early mornings, scavengers of varying ages would go out into vast mines to steal small portions of coal for the black market.

Many of those I interviewed asked me the same question: “Where else do I go?”

By 6 a.m. the coal trucks have already begun like clockwork at a BCCL mine in Jharia, a town in the eastern state of Jharkrand. The mines are India’s primary source of coking coal, an essential ingredient in steel production. The coal has become a curse for the town as underground fires have been ignited from the coal combustion as shown in the centre.

The government rehabilitation program either hadn’t reached them or was inadequate to support their families. Is economy going to be able step in once we’ve physically drained our planet? It was important for me to show how the tale of coal really ends – with the elimination of life.

While it was relatively easy to gain access to closed mines, for the functioning Bharat Coking Coal Ltd (BCCL) mines, most of my work was a stealth mission trying to avoid guards, especially to get night shots. At one point the Indian Army did catch us trespassing and I thought I was done. But I was working with a well-connected fixer that diffused the situation, and we left immediately. I chose to work like this because I felt I’d capture more than if I went in on a monitored journalist visit.                                                                              
For the majority of my photos, I use a Canon 5D MKIII with a 24-70mm lens. Digital gives me a lot of flexibility in zones that you need to get in and out of quickly. For safety reasons but also lighting concerns, I carry a 50mm on my body for swapping over if I need something light so as to not to impose on subjects. It might be a photographic faux pas – but I shoot a lot of my work with the camera levelled at my chest while peeking at the LCD screen because I want to be making eye contact with the subject or talking to them while we’re shooting. For these photographs, however, I was trying to branch out into using film, so I brought out a Fujifilm TX-1 also known as the Hasselblad Xpan which is a panoramic 35mm film camera.

A dog looks down at the eerie glow of an underground fire, just at the edge of a village in Jharia. The rest of the area is pockmarked with fissures of flames and noxious fumes. Every few months, a house is smoked out or disappears into a new crack that has opened in the ground.

Mridula Amin is a Dhaka-born Australian photojournalist. She’s in her fifth and final year of her Bachelor of Arts-Media degree with a Bachelor of Law. Her work focuses on reportage covering global crisis, migration, and identity.