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February 18, 2011
Scavenging to survive in India's belt of fire
BOKAPAHARI, India -- The villagers set out from this shattered hamlet long before dawn, walking without flashlights on trails they can navigate without looking. They pass small mountains of mining slag that, in the darkness, are just blurry silhouettes. They weave barefoot through brush. When the trail reaches a dirt road, they descend into the open pit of a coal mine. Then, as the night sky starts turning to gray, they begin hacking coal from an exposed black seam. A few hours later the scavengers return to their villages, their baskets filled with stolen coal.
They return to visions of the apocalypse.
They come back to villages where smoke pours from fissures in the earth, where flames from underground fires lick at trails, where oily fumes leave visitors gagging. In places, Bokapahari looks like nearly every other village around here -- cramped stone houses plastered with mud, children playing in dirt roads, tangled electricity lines -- until, off at the edge of town, the earth is buckled and warped, riven by cracks and scorched by burn marks. Beneath the scavengers' villages are dozens of underground coal fires, one dating to 1918. Above the fires are thousands of people living at the ragged edge of existence. -- Story by Tim Sullivan; Images by Kevin Frayer / Associatied Press (22 images)

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A young woman stumbles as she tries to carry a large basket of coal on Jan. 6, 2011as she and others illegally scavenge at an open-cast mine in the village of Bokapahari in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand where a community of coal scavengers live and work. The contrast between India old and new is nowhere more vivid than among the villages of coal scavengers in eastern India, sitting on an apocalyptic landscape of smoke and fire from decades-old underground coal fires. While India grows ever more middle-class and awash in creature comforts, these villagers risk their lives scavenging coal illegally for a few dollars a day, and come back to homes that at any moment could be swallowed by a fresh fire-induced crack in the earth. AP / Kevin Frayer


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A laborer chips away at a seam of coal on Jan. 7, 2011 as she scavenges at an open-cast mine in the village of Bokapahari in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand where a community of coal scavengers live and work. AP / Kevin Frayer



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A young laborer chips away at a seam of coal as he scavenges at an open-cast mine on Jan. 6, 2011 in the village of Bokapahari in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand where a community of coal scavengers live and work. AP / Kevin Frayer



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A laborer chips away at a seam of coal as he scavenges at an open-cast mine in the village of Bokapahari in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand on Jan. 7, 2011 where a community of coal scavengers live and work. AP / Kevin Frayer



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A coal scavenger carries a block of coal illegally taken from an open-cast mine in the village of Bokapahari in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand on Jan. 7, 2011 where a community of coal scavengers live and work. AP / Kevin Frayer



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Laborers carry baskets of coal illegally gathered from an open-cast mine on Jan. 5, 2011 in the village of Bokapahari in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand where a community of coal scavengers live and work. AP / Kevin Frayer



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Laborers carry large baskets of coal as they illegally scavenged from an open-cast mine in the village of Bokapahari in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand on Jan. 6, 2011 where a community of coal scavengers live and work. AP / Kevin Frayer



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Laborers carry baskets of coal illegally taken from an open-cast mine in the village of Bokapahari in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand on Jan. 7, 2011 where a community of coal scavengers live and work. AP / Kevin Frayer



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People carry baskets of coal scavenged illegally at an open-cast mine in the village of Bokapahari in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand on Jan. 7, 2011 where a community of coal scavengers live and work. AP / Kevin Frayer



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Youths fly a kite as coal fires from scavenged coal burn near an open-cast mine in the Jharia District of the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand on Jan. 6, 2011. AP / Kevin Frayer



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A girl dances near plumes of smoke from fires of coal scavenged by her family in the New Colony village in Jharkand, India on Jan. 7, 2011. AP / Kevin Frayer



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Children stand near a Hindu temple in the New Colony village where a community of coal scavengers lives and works in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand. AP / Kevin Frayer



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A person stands next to small piles of coal burning after scavenging from an open-cast mine in the Jharia district of Jharkand, India on Jan. 6, 2011. AP / Kevin Frayer



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Laborers stand next to small piles of coal burning after scavenging it from an open-cast mine in the Jharia district of the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand on Jan. 6, 2011. AP / Kevin Frayer



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Stray dogs stand on the parched and burnt earth where underground coal fires are burning in the village of Bokapahari in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand on Jan. 6, 2011 where a community of coal scavengers live and work. AP / Kevin Frayer



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Smoke from an underground coal fire rises from the ground near an open-cast mine in the village of Bokapahari, where a community of coal scavengers live and work in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand on Jan. 5, 2011. AP / Kevin Frayer



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Men stand next to the glowing embers of an underground coal fire in the village of Bokapahari in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand on Jan. 6, 2011 where a community of coal scavengers live and work. AP / Kevin Frayer



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A man and child stay warm next to small piles of burning coal illegally scavenged near an open-cast mine in the Jharia district of the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand on Jan. 5, 2011. AP / Kevin Frayer



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Young coal scavengers stand together next to a burning pile of coal in Jharia in Jharkand, India on Jan. 5, 2011. AP / Kevin Frayer



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Coal scavengers warm themselves by a pile of burning coal near an open-cast mine in the village of Bokapahari in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand on Jan. 5, 2011 where a community of coal scavengers live and work. AP / Kevin Frayer



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A building demolished by authorities to keep residents from returning in the village of Bokapahari in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand on Jan. 7, 2011 where a community of coal scavengers live and work. AP / Kevin Frayer



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A view of new apartments in Belgarhia on Jan. 6, 2011 in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand built by the government to house relocated coal scavengers and residents of the Jharia district. AP / Kevin Frayer



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