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Woes of Balochistan’s coalminers

Updated December 17, 2013

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Asmatullah narrates problems coalminers face during their work — Photo by Dawn
Asmatullah narrates problems coalminers face during their work — Photo by Dawn

QUETTA: In the vast expanse of Balochistan there is an arid area, its topography marked by low hills whose stones have been worn smooth by the millennia. Settlements are few and far between, the vegetation is sparse, and links to modernity next to non-existent — except, that is, for the dozens of trucks that ply the rough roads, billowing diesel fumes and thick black dust into the air.

This is Spin Karez, a 30-minute drive from Quetta and a hub of activity for labourers and truckers; deep under the earth lies coal. Spin Karez is where some 60 trucks a day are loaded to take to other parts of the country the coal that is increasingly in demand in a gas-starved nation.

The bustle of the loading station masks a world of inequity. In the coal mines of this area, hundreds of lives are put into daily jeopardy both by an exploitative system and the state’s silence.

One such miner is the grey-bearded Asmatullah. Face stained black, he spends his days in the dark, deep underground, digging for and then transporting coal. The working conditions for him are pitiful, severely compromising his health and quality of life. But “we earn in the day so we can eat at night,” he tells Dawn. “It is a very hard job, but poverty brought me here. What choice do I have?”

Like Asmatullah, hundreds of miners labour over 10 hours a day to earn their bread. Indeed, coal mining has become a family business: once too sick to work, the father is replaced by the son who is in due course replaced by the grandson. Most of the miners come from the Swat district, or from volatile southern Afghanistan. They start off in this line of work as young as 13 but their expected working life is only about 20 years — young miners with unpolluted lungs are always sent into the deepest part of the mines. By the age of 30, most have tuberculosis and can no longer work long or deep.

The beneficiaries are the owners of the mine; the miners themselves work for a pittance, with no safeguards in place. More than 40 miners died in a blast inside a mine on March 20, 2011, and official sources acknowledge that more than a hundred miners have died in such explosions over the past three years alone.

According to Iftikhar Ahmed, an official of the Balochistan Mines and Mineral Development Department and a former chief inspector of mines, there are about 250 coalmines employing over 12,000 people. This figure is disputed by labour leader Pir Muhammad Kakar, who puts the number at about 50,000. Other estimates put the number of mines at about 400 and the workers at over 100,000. Kakar alleges that official records show a low number of miners since most are uninsured and are not registered with employees’ old-age benefit institutions.

What there is no dispute about is that lives are risked every day even though — on paper — a supervisory system is in place. Ahmed claims that mines’ inspectors are bound to visit each mine 10 times a month. “Their job is to check the working conditions of the miners,” he says. “In case of violations, the inspector has the power to seal it.”

Nevertheless, he admits that mine-owners are influential people and the government department often faces political pressure over the closure of a mine. And the story told by the miners themselves puts into serious doubt the effectiveness of the supervisory system.

Miner Muhammad Shafi, for example, says that even over the course of a year, inspectors will not be seen at a mine. “Officials only show up if there’s a blast,” he says.

Alongside the men looking aged beyond their years are children collecting and transporting coal. Ten-year-old Azizullah says that he earns Rs200 a day, and goes to a mosque in lieu of school. The same story is told by 9-year-old Sher Ali, who has been working in Spin Karez for the past two years. There are dozens like them, mostly from Afghan refugee families.

What their future will be like can be gauged easily. Even leaving aside the brutal manual labour, coal mining is extremely hazardous. “The dust enters their lungs and results in several diseases, most commonly the inability to take a breath,” says chest-physician Dr Shireen Khan.

The Geological Survey of Pakistan says that coal is amongst the 106 minerals found in resource-rich Balochistan. But that matters little to the miners, in whose experience officialdom is unconcerned about the violation of labour laws and the abysmal working conditions in coalmines.

The trucks from Spin Karez lumber away to supply coal to industrial cities that have been badly hit by gas shortages; meanwhile, there is criminal silence over the exploitation that produced it.