Natabara Ray Samant, a 70-year-old lawyer, recalls a terrifying morning in 1981 when he discovered that his four acres of paddy field had turned into a pond.He instantly realised that it would have happened because of surface subsidence due to the extensive underground coal mining that’s carried out in this area. Odisha’s Talcher city is India’s largest coalfield. At least 12 States depend on it for coal and thermal power.Incidents of subsidence have been occurring regularly in Talcher or ‘coal town’ over the past 38 years. In 2014, a big cavity appeared in the middle of a crowded locality near the Sai temple, leaving people terrified. More recently, in December 2018, resident Shantilata Bai watched the floor of her tiny house cave in in front of her eyes. Her family have decided to leave the gaping hole unrepaired so that they can convince authorities that they are entitled to a compensation. Samant, the lawyer, is still tirelessly fighting to bring the miners to book and get the collier to pay compensation for what he terms a ‘man-made disaster’.In the last four decades, there have been 15 major cases of land subsidence in Talcher. The incidents are not mere coincidences. In 2007, the director general of Mines Safety had declared four villages, Atharpa, Remuan, Koilunda and parts of Talcher township, as ‘no construction zones’ Two years later, the Talcher-Angul-Meramandali Development Authority issued a public notice that stated it would not approve any building plan and would prohibit further construction here.As the number of subsidence incidents increases, residents are now demanding to be relocated to a safer place. "The vast coal reserves here have put Talcher on the world map, but it has become a curse for us. Even a moderate earthquake will wipe us out," says Ranjit Mohapatra, convenor of a forum that consists of people affected by the underground coal mining.The Talcher coalfield was discovered in the late 1800s, when the first systematic search for coal was undertaken in this region. In 1857, 80 tonnes of coal were mined from the Gopalprasad area. According to Mahanadi Coalfields Ltd (MCL), a subsidiary of the public sector Coal India, Odisha ranks second, after Jharkhand, in the country’s coal deposits, with 77.285 billion tonnesTalcher coalfield has the country’s highest coal reserve of 51.163 billion tonnes. Tonnes of the black diamond have been excavated through underground and open-cast mining.Typically, underground coal mining need not pose any threat as long as the mine voids are immediately backfilled with sand and made compact. In the case of Talcher, this is not always done."When I started working in the Deulabera colliery in 1974, I travelled down a 3.5-km-long underground tunnel to bring out the coal," recollects Lalit Kumar Dehury, a former worker in the colliery. He remembers sand stowing being carried out for many years. "Tonnes of sand would be brought in wagons and deposited in the mining void in the late 1980s," he says, but the practice soon slowed down.Indramani Pradhan, who is nearing his retirement, shares a similar experience. "I worked as a mechanical fitter in the Dera colliery. I used to work right under the earth’s crust. We had dug four kilometres deep."