Black hole: The punishing lives of Balochistan's coal miners

Updated October 04, 2014

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“Miners are always at the mercy of coal mine owners.” -Photo by Ali Shah
“Miners are always at the mercy of coal mine owners.” -Photo by Ali Shah

Gul Rehman spent the most precious days of life in the black holes of coal mines that dot Quetta's rugged mountains of Sorange.

A grueling forty years and not much has changed; each day a long, drawn out repeat of the previous.

“During the Ayub Khan era I moved from Swat to Quetta to start work in these mines,” Rehman, who is fondly know as ‘Spin Mama’, tells Dawn.com,

Like thousands of coal miners, Spin Mama took up this hazardous profession to feed his poverty-stricken family members.

“Poverty brought me here. There were no jobs or resources in Swat,” he says, drawing deep breaths.

Most of the coal miners belong to Swat, Balochistan's Sibi, Toba Kakari and Afghanistan's volatile southern region.

The workers live in conditions which are no better than the very mines of resource-rich Sorange. Their employers have constructed mud-walled houses for them close to the mountains so that they can be close to the mines twenty-four hours.

A fragile door clings to the entrance of Spin Mama’s one-room house. One would have expected a little bit more comfort after four decades of service but the conditions inside the house are not much better.

His five sons also work in different coal mines in the area and barring one, who is now married, all the boys live in the same house with the father.

“Now I’ve become old. So working here is difficult for me,” Spin Mama, who is now possibly in his late 60s, says.

“I do not know my real age,” the hollow-cheeked man says.

Terminal Damage

It takes almost 45 minutes to reach the rugged mountains of Sorange. With no safety conditions in place, each day is packed with uncertainties. But the miners have become indifferent to these risks. According to Mines and Minerals Department of Balochistan, 130 gas explosions and incidents have taken place inside coal mines of the province during last ten years. Hundreds of coal miners have lost their lives in methane gas explosions and other incidents inside the mines.

Young miners are always sent deepest inside the mines to extract coal. Their ‘peak’ years are well utilised by the mining companies and lung diseases are an inevitable outcome.

“Most of the people who work in coal mines carry Tuberculosis and other diseases," Dr. Shireen Khan, Assistant Professor Fatima Chest and General Hospital Quetta says.

In a clear violation of labour laws, miners are forced to work for ten to twelve hours a day.

"I have a respiratory disease and I’m sure it’s because there is no ventilation in the deepest parts of the mine," Zarin Gul, a miner who also belongs to Swat, says.

With weak and in some cases almost no vigilance mechanisms in place, the coal miners do not adopt safety measures themselves either.

However, Malik Hassan Raza, the owner of the coal mine in Sorange confronts this version and asserts that he "personally monitors the ventilation system” in his mine.

He also demonstrates the methane gas detecting equipment to make his point.

According to Liaqat Kashani, the Deputy Secretary Mines and Minerals Department, there are four rescue centers to timely evacuate trapped mine workers in the case of any incident.

Labour leader Pir Muhammad Kakar rejects these claims.

“Even first aid is not available near coal mines,” Kakar says.

A poorly-equipped medical center was established by the Pakistan Minerals Development Corporation for miners. However, there are no medical facilities close to privately owned mines in the area.

In the case of an emergency, dedicated transportation is not available to shift people to Quetta.

“Most of the miners succumb to injuries on way to hospital,” Kakar adds.

Wheezing children

Apart from young and elderly miners, a large number of children also work inside mines and at coal loading and unloading stations.

According to a survey conducted by SEHER a non-governmental organisation, more than 300 children were presently working in the coal mines of Balochistan.

“Negligence of concerned and poverty has force these children to take up this hazardous job,” Wadood Tareen, the Chief of SEHER says.

The children narrate different tales about their sufferings. Most have aged parents with no means of earning.

“My father is ill and aged. I feed my family”, Niamatullah, an eleven-year-old boy, who collects coal at Spin Karez loading centre, says.

From dawn to dusk, like other coal workers, the children also come to Spin Karez to collect pieces of coal for selling.

“I am here every day. There is no time for school,” Niamatullah says with the single-mindedness of an individual who sees no other future.

Laws relating to child labour have been made but are barely implemented. The concerned authorities appear to be least bothered about the innocent minors working at these centres.

Hitherto, the mining sector is being run in Balochistan under 1923 act framed by British rulers in sub-continent. Under the act, the law enforcers ought to close a mine in the case of an explosion or accident.

“We also fine mine owners for any negligence under the act,” Liaqat Kashani, the Deputy Secretary Mines and Minerals Department says.

However, Kakar contradicts Kashani’s claim and says that despite repeated explosions inside mines, no mine was closed in Balochistan.

“Miners are always at the mercy of coal mine owners.”

Ground realities negate official claims with regard to better safety conditions inside coal mines in Balochistan.

Despite the increasing incidents inside the mines and a total neglect for labour laws, the cycle continues for the likes of Spin Mama.

Each day is dark and hazy.