CNN Photos

‘Everything is black’: The cost of coal mining

More than a century of coal mining has transformed the landscape of the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand, wiping out forests to make room for huge, open-cut mines.

In some areas, fumes rise from the ground as subterranean coal seams burn below. People gather huge lumps of coal in baskets, carrying them on their heads.

In the view of photographer Erik Messori, the output of the mines has come at a tremendous cost. He spent three months in the region, chronicling the human and environmental toll that Jharkhand’s coal industry has exacted.

“Everything is black — from sky to ground, from air to water,” he said.

Coal has made some people in Jharkhand rich; for others, it is the only way to earn enough money to survive. The industry has turned many residents away from farming the land to mining it.

Messori’s photos show life in and around the mines that blot the landscape. In one picture, two youths play cricket next to the mine where their parents work. Behind them, plumes of noxious gas rise into the air.

Local people can develop severe respiratory problems, including lung cancer, Messori says. Jharkhand is among the lowest ranked Indian states in human development indicators, according to the United Nations Development Programme.

One of his images shows a miner with a lung problem being treated with oxygen. But many local people are unaware of the health risks until it’s too late, Messori said.

Meanwhile, the state’s environment is suffering badly from the large amounts of carbon monoxide produced by the mining and the rampant deforestation that clears the way for the open-cut mines.

Messori said he thinks the heavy changes the industry has wrought on Jharkhand “will affect not only the Indian workers’ health, but India as (a) nation, as well as the rest of the world.”

He set out to document the situation there in order to bring attention to “the inhuman living and health conditions of people in the area” and “the critical condition of the environment.”

Other dangers are more immediate, like the ground underneath your feet.

Messori said he remembers one particularly alarming incident during the time he spent photographing Jharkhand in 2010 and 2011.

During a visit to a coal mine, the ground where his translator was walking suddenly gave way, swallowing the man’s legs up to his knees.

As Messori ran to help the translator, one of his legs sank into the ground, too. With one leg still on a firm footing, he was eventually able to free himself and the translator. But the burning heat from underground had destroyed their shoes and trousers.

There are other risks, too. Maoist rebels have been active in Jharkhand for decades, and the state’s politics is plagued by corruption scandals and instability.

“For an independent photographer, it was difficult to stay there for many reasons,” Messori said, noting the possibilities of kidnapping, robbery and violence. As one of the few Westerners there, he stood out.

But he said his biggest concern, with all the fumes from the mines, was his health.

- Jethro Mullen, CNN