At 21 years, Abdul Rahman is too young to be out of work. Since he lost his right leg in a recent mining accident at Dukki in Balochistan's Loralai district he has been unable to find a new job. He was working at a coal mine in the area when it had caved in, trapping him under the rubble and fracturing his leg.
Barely making 8,000 rupees per month back then and with a wife and two children to feed, he did not have the financial resources to avail treatment in Quetta or any other big city. After some time, the fractured leg had to be amputated as it showed no signs of healing. Since then Rahman has been reduced to penury, him and his family dependent on his younger brother who also works at a mine in Balochistan's Chamalang region.
Such accidents and consequent human tragedies are quite common in the mining areas of the province given that accident prevention measures, and safety mechanism and regulations at mines are completely absent. Mining in Balochistan is still done the hard old way: miners dig coal from tunnels, which on an average are 8,000 feet deep, and then carry it to the surface on their back in gunny bags weighing about 100 kilogrammes. Haulage trolleys are available in a few mines only, and that too for just half the distance. The mine ceiling is supported by wood pillars and any change in surface pressure – for instance, due to water accumulation, floods or landslides – can destabilise and weaken it. At times it collapses and traps miners inside.
However, such obsolete practices are in violation of the provincial mining laws, Mines Act 1923 and the Balochistan Mining Rules 2002, which require mines to be excavated with latest mining engineering techniques. The laws call upon engineers from the mines department to conduct regular inspection and assess the strength of the supporting structures in the mine, provision of proper lighting, ventilation and exhaust mechanisms for the emission of highly combustible gases. The law also makes it mandatory for the miners to observe safety guidelines, including wearing oxygen masks, and safety shoes, uniforms and helmets.
But as with all provisions of the law, these exist only on paper. None of the mines that the Herald visited in Balochistan had personal protective equipment available. At most of them, the miners did not even have proper safety helmets. Moreover, no arrangement was in place to ensure that methane did not accumulate inside the mines or that the ceilings were stable. One obvious conclusion: no government official has ever inspected those mines according to the letter and spirit of the Mining Act.
Faisal Abbas of the Balochistan Environmental and Educational Journey, a non-governmental organisation, says that the mine owners are to blame for not providing workers with basic safety gear. His organisation has arranged seminars to educate miners about their safety, and to remind the mine owners and the government inspectors of their respective responsibilities. "To ensure the safety of the miners, inspectors must conduct thorough checks, from gauging the strength of wooden pillars supporting the ceiling to environmental factors in and around. But they rarely ever do their job properly," he alleges.
Under the law, the mine owners are also supposed to provide for special testing equipment such as gas detectors, digital sensors and safety lamps to keep check on the accumulation of hazardous gases and materials inside the mines. But the miners say the only thing they have approaching close to these gadgets is a spirit lamp with an open flame, a rather dicey contraption; firstly, it sucks oxygen lowering its levels and making breathing difficult, and secondly, the gases can be set alight by the flame.
Miners narrate numerous incidents in which their co-workers suffered severe injuries, some fatal, due to dangerous levels of combustible gases. Mohammad Bashir, a worker at a mine owned by the Pakistan Mineral Development Corporation in Sorange, tells the Herald that in 2008 he survived a fatal explosion but 14 of his co-workers died due to suffocation and burns. “I lost consciousness but am lucky to have survived,” he recalls.
Thirty-year-old Abdul Karim was in a similar incident at a mine in Dukki about 10 years ago and received severe burns. His skin acquired secondary bacterial infection and he still has blisters and abscesses over his entire body. "I still suffer from fever and am not able to work," Karim says. "But the mine contractor did not help in my treatment."
At times even the haulage trolleys used for carrying coal outside the mines can be lethal. Tied to metal ropes, they hurl down their tracks into the mines at high speeds. If a miner has to stop them, he does not have any mechanical means available to him. The only way for him to stop it is to jump in front of a fast-moving trolley and try to hold it back using his own body as brakes. "Workers get hurt while getting on or off such trolleys," says a miner.
But the absence of equipment and safety measures are not the only problems that the miners have to contend with. The mines are narrow labyrinthine structures, sometimes going hundreds of feet horizontally and then dipping down vertically by the same measure. Miners have to walk – and at times crawl due to the low height of the ceiling – to their workstation. In some mines it can take them up to two hours just to reach their destination and the same amount of time to exit from there. Consequently, they end up being inside the mines much longer than their usual shift.