Lives of coal miners in peril

21 Sep 2014


Heaps of coal in Choa Saidan Shah. — Photos by the writer
Heaps of coal in Choa Saidan Shah. — Photos by the writer

Islam Badshah, 47, wakes up early in the morning. He eats a stale chapatti cooked the previous night and has a cup of green tea. After his meagre breakfast, Badshah picks up his pick-axe and heads for the 1,100 feet long and dark tunnel. The thought of never coming back alive haunts him. The long and precarious route leads him deep down into a coalmine.

The coal dust and the stench of donkey's waste makes the air suffocating, but Badshah continues to labour for nine consecutive hours. And all this time, he digs for coal while sitting or lying down. There is no room for him to stand in the three to four foot high tunnel.

"We have no option. We have to feed our families and this is the only work we have," he said in a low voice as he looks at his weakened body covered in coal dust.

Islam Badshah, a resident of Karak, is among the thousands of labourers who risk their lives in the dangerous coal mines of the Salt Range to earn a living. There are a total of 7.6 million coal mine workers throughout the country.

Coal is being loaded on a donkey.
Coal is being loaded on a donkey.

Although the Mining Act 1923 crafted under the British Rule stresses on adopting standard operating procedures in the mining industry, the law is never implemented practically.

"Nobody cares for us," said Zaffar Ali Khan 30, the younger brother of Islam Badshah.

Islam Badshah and his six fellow labourers live on a hill near Basharat village located in the fascinating Jhangar Valley of Choa Saidan Shah in Chakwal district.

"We take out two tons of coal daily," says Kaleemullah, 24, a resident of Dera Ismail Khan.

The Salt Range is rich in minerals like salt, gypsum and coal. The mountains in the area can be seen dotted with coal mines from where 300,000 tons of coal is extracted annually. The owners of these mines are billionaires but the labourers struggle to survive.

“My father was a teenager when he started working in the mines, and spent the rest of his life here. Now, it's my turn; I am following in my father's footsteps," Badshah said.

These miners follow decades-old method of mining. They dig up the rocks, extract coal through pick axes and load them on donkeys. The coal is then hauled out of the mines on these donkeys.

After witnessing the whole process one can say that the work of donkeys is relatively easier than that of the poor miners.

Miners pose as they sit on a heap of extracted coal.
Miners pose as they sit on a heap of extracted coal.

According to the data obtained from the office of Inspectorate of Mines and Minerals Punjab, on an average 62 miners die and 14 get injured every year as a result of accidents in the mines. The small number of injured clearly shows that whenever an accident occurs in the mines, chances of survival are bleak.

According to law if a miner is killed in an accident, his heirs would be paid Rs900,000 - Rs400,000 by the employer and Rs500,000 by the government. But unfortunately this has never been the case.

"Never has any heir received Rs900,000 compensation. The maximum amount that a family gets is Rs200,000," Zaffar Ali Khan said.

As coal contains carbon, which is dangerous to health, coal miners struggle throughout their lives with health problems.

“Although I’m 47-year-old, I look at least 10 years older," says Badshah who has difficulty in breathing.

“Mine workers suffer from fatal diseases like tuberculosis (TB), asthma and lung-related ailments," says a senior doctor at the Mining Hospital Choa Saidan Shah on condition of anonymity.

Although a special hospital for mine workers has been established in Choa Saidan Shah, it is badly in need of latest equipment and facilities.

"Most miners die early because they have no good hospital to go to for treatment," says Islam Badshah.

"We are just skeletons. There is nothing in us," Badshah adds.

"We eat meat once a month; the remaining days it is just pulses and vegetables," says Zaffar Ali Khan.

Although there is Employees Old Age Benefit Institution (EOBI) that ensures pension for workers of private institutions, like many private establishments the mine owners have also found ways to escape from the rules of EOBI.

“Most mine owners do not appoint labourers on permanent basis. They only hire them as daily wage workers or on contract basis which is why these labourers do not fall within the ambit of EOBI. To get pension from the EOBI, a labourer should serve a private institution till the age of 60," says Farid Ahmed, the assistant director, EOBI.

The coal extracted from the mines is brought to Choa Saidan Shah town where contractors buy it. From here it is loaded on trucks and trailers and transported to various parts of the country. The price of one truck of coal ranges from Rs100,000 to Rs120,000.

The plight of labourers who load coal on trucks is as miserable as that of the miners.

Most labourers associated with mining are either from South Punjab or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

"There is no labour in our area, so we have to come here," says Ghulam Shabbir, a labourer from Layyah district who loads coal on trucks in Choa Saidan Shah.

"Life is very tough for us. We sleep on the ground while one person remains awake and keeps an eye on snakes, scorpions or any other danger," he adds.

According to a senior official at the Punjab Mines and Minerals Department, "Only 20 per cent of the coal extracted from Salt Range is of good quality. Therefore most of the coal is consumed in brick kilns."

He admits that "the method of mining is old and dangerous. There is a dire need to adopt modern methods in the mining industry."

Published in Dawn, September 21st, 2014