With 10% of global reserves and one of the fastest growing economies in the world, it's no surprise that India is addicted to coal. The fossil fuel is responsible for nearly 70% of the nation's electricity, and Coal India - the world's largest coal miner - cannot produce coke fast enough to meet demand at the nation's steel mills. With coal fuelling its incredible economic growth, India is projected to become the world's third largest emitter of CO2 by 2015, trailing just China and the US.
While this is bad news for the world's warming atmosphere, it's catastrophic news for those unfortunate to live on top of India's vast deposits. In Jharkand state, which is home to the country's largest reserves, ill regulated opencast mines have filled the air with carcinogenic dust, polluted water supplies with toxic waste, and turned virgin forest into barren and uninhabitable land. And if that's not challenge enough, for many residents the earth is literally burning away beneath their houses and their feet.
Jharkhand has some of the worst subterranean coal fires in the world, raging unchecked through India's primary source of coking coal. Started nearly a century ago by the poor mining practices of the British, the fires release immeasurable quantities of toxic smoke and CO2 through fissures in the ground, causing subsidence which has claimed over 400 lives and a number of villages since 1965. Combined with the country's dire need for more coal, these fires are now precipitating largest population shift in India since partition.
But if nearly a century of mining has extracted a heavy toll on the landscape and people of Jharkhand, it could be nothing in the face of the new operations required by skyrocketing demand. More mines and power stations are under construction, and inconvenient townships are being moved out of the way. Yet India badly needs development, and development needs fuel.
Ultimately, with two hundred years of viable reserves just beneath the surface, it looks unlikely that India's future will be
powered by anything so much as coal.