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Voices from Mobile Vaani: What’s at stake due to the closure of Dhanbad-Chandrapura railway line

A fire that has been brewing underground for a century has eventually led to drastic changes to the lives and livelihoods of tens of thousands of people in Jharkhand.

Coal mines under Dhanbad have been on fire for over a 100 years, and this has led to several changes such as the Dhanbad-Jharia rail line being routed out. The latest victim to the coal fire is the Dhanbad-Chandrapura rail line, which is the main corridor for passenger and freight trains on the East Central Railway (ECR).

Fires, first discovered in 1916, have been identified at several points under the Dhanbad-Chandrapura railway line, threatening to cave in at any point. Following much discussion around who was responsible for delayed action in dousing the fire, and the financial losses that would arise from stopping passenger and freight movement on the line, a report was commissioned by the Director General of Mine Safety, which recommended immediate closure of the railway line for the safety of people. The closure of the line was effected on June 15, 2017.

To understand people’s reactions to this sudden development, Jharkhand Mobile Vaani issued a call for opinions on the matter.

Of economic losses and hardships

Faisal from Ranchi was one of the few users who agreed that the closure of the Dhanbad-Chandrapura line was a good move for the benefit of the people, but he too highlighted that the government should immediately put in place measures to reduce difficulties that people are facing because of this.

Several users wondered how the government could have taken such a step before putting alternatives in place, such as Madan Lal Chauhan, who reports for Mobile Vaani from Baghmara, Dhanbad and Basal Sharma from Bermo, Bokaro especially when the fire has been burning for decades and such drastic closure of services would result in loss of crores of rupees for the government.

Birbal Mahto from Baghmara, Dhanbad talked about the urgency with which the government shut down the line, which, to him, puts its motives in question. He reports that the economic activity and livelihoods of traders who operate in the bazaar that is spread up to 15 kilometres from the railway line have been affected.

It’s not just economic activity that has been affected, however; students who used to use the railway line for cost-effective transportation between Dhanbad and Chandrapura now have to commute via buses and auto-rickshaws, increasing their expenditures considerably. This could have a serious impact on their education as most students from the region are already poor, going through their education with great financial difficulty.

Class 12 student Sushma Kumari from Petrawar, Bokaro mentioned the specific difficulties women face because of the line being closed – female students who travel from Dhanbad to Chandrapura to attend school might eventually drop out for lack of transportation, while women who have established livelihoods along the line will be left unemployed because they cannot access their workplace.

Is the government listening?

Needless to say, protests erupted following the announcement of the closure, including one by former Jharkhand chief minister Shri Babulal Marandi. Chief Minister Shri Raghubar Das has also met the central Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu to ask for alternative measures to be arranged at the earliest, since thousands were suffering because of the line being suspended.

Even as the ministry is considering the possibilities of rerouting trains and building alternate lines, and the Dhanbad district administration has arranged for buses through the route, many continue to protest against the move.

The issue continues to be debated at several levels; Rajya Sabha MP from Bihar Shri Harivansh, raised questions on the matter on 20 July, asking how the funds allotted to manage the fires were utilised, and what alternatives the government is considering given that the line was suspended on very short notice. Although Union Minister for Power, Coal, New & Renewable Energy and Mines Shri Piyush Goyal has responded saying that the fire under the Dhanbad-Chandrapura railway line was very close to the surface – which increases its dangers significantly – alternatives and solutions are yet to be formalised. And until then, the lives and livelihoods of thousands dependent on the railway line are in question.

Mobile Vaani seeks to collate opinions of people whose voices are often missed out – those in rural India. By providing opportunities for people to share views on issues that matter to their lives and livelihoods, Mobile Vaani is paving the way for hyperlocal news to travel beyond India’s heartlands, into the mainstream. Visit www.mobilevaani.in to know more and listen to news from India’s rural areas.