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WORTH THE WAGE?

Updated May 22, 2018

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A worker comes out of a coal mine in Lakhra.—Photo by writer
A worker comes out of a coal mine in Lakhra.—Photo by writer

“I FELL into a frenzy when I was informed that my brother had been in a coal mine accident,” recalls Sami­ullah. “I called my cousin, who worked with him in the mine, and he confirmed the news.”

Samiullah’s older bro­ther Rehmatullah, only 27 years old, along with three others, died in a coal mine in Balochis­tan. “Because of the cop­ious amounts of natural gas that was released, they died choking, unable to breathe,” says Samiullah.

Rehmatullah left behind four children. The other workers were young, too. “How can I forget what my brother suffered, living and working so far away, only to send money back home for us?” says Samiullah.

Miners’ deaths in coal mines and the dangerous work they do are nothing new. Most of Shangla sends its men as coal miners to different places in Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan.

Rehmatullah’s death occurred last month, but by early May, around 25 people were killed in a mine in Quetta; many others were injured. Of the deceased, 16 were from the Zara village of Alpuri Shangla. And earlier, in April, coal mine labourers from Shangla lost their lives while eight were injured in two separate incidents at Darra Adam Khel, Fata, and in Jhelum, Punjab.

“Every month, the people of Shangla receive the bodies of their loved ones because about 70 per cent of the coal miners belong to this area,” says Abid Yar, an activist working on coal mine labourers’ welfare.

I travelled to Hyderabad to visit the Lakhra coal mines. Engineer Muhammad Hanif Daheri, who has been working in Lakhra for 40 years, says that coal exists all over the 110-kilometre area of Lakhra and around 10,000 tonnes of coal is sent daily from Lakhra to Punjab and other parts of the country; 35 companies are working there.

“When I came to Lakhra in 1988, it was a stronghold of robbers who were kidnapping labourers from the mines for ransom,” says Daheri. “Many were killed, but gradually the government cleared the area.”

In one mine at a time, some 15 to 20 labourers are at work. Each earns between Rs2,500 and Rs5,000 daily. While Sindh is the largest coal producer, Balochistan follows close behind, and after that is Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata.

“Coal mine work is probably the most difficult work in the world,” says Daheri. “Labourers must cut the coal by going 300 to 600 feet below ground.”

In Lakhra, I meet Nawab Ali from Sangrai, Shangla. “There is hardly a job available in Shangla, especially without a recommendation,” says Ali, a graduate of social science who works here along with his three brothers. “I failed miserably at finding any work.”

Amanullah, a labour union leader from Shangla, says that majority of the labourers are aged between 15 and 28 because labourers that are old cannot work at this life-threatening place. Nevertheless, youth does not necessarily guarantee life either.

The government at Lakhra has been taxing coal at Rs475 per tonne from the contractors. But the only rescue centre established years ago by the Sindh government has been shut for a long time, while the hospital is dysfunctional, too. “If there is an accident, or any other health issue, we have to take labourers to Hyderabad,” explains Daheri.

The mine itself is a different world. Labourers — 18 in one particular part of the mine — are cutting coal. Despite the dangerous work they are doing, there are no safety precautions. Some are digging up coal, while others put it in sacks.

“Those who work the hardest of all are the people from Shangla, Dir and Swat,” says Qaimos Gul Khattak, from the Muttahida Coalmines Labourers’ Association, Sindh. “These are the only people who you will see bravely working in the mines.”

Sher Nawab, a miner from Upper Dir, has been working here for 30 years and says that he has seen dozens of deadly incidents. “Poverty and the lack of employment sends us miles away from home,” he laments.

Meanwhile, Abid Yaar says that about 100 labourers have died from just his Pirabad village because of lung disease. “You can imagine how high the number is for all the 28 union councils of Shangla,” he says.

Even so, the mines in Hyderabad are slightly better off in terms of safety compared to those in the other provinces. “Around 200 labourers die every year because of gas leakage, explosion, coal blasting, and the lack of safety,” says Sarzameen Afghani, general secretary of the Pakistan Mine Workers’ Federation (PMWF). “The safety laws have not been implemented, while mine inspectors and supervisors are not performing well.”

According to the PMWF, deadly incidents have increased during the last eight years but mine authorities are still unwilling to close them down. “In 2012, at the Quetta sewerage line mine, incident 43 labourers — all hailing from Shangla — were killed, and dozens others were permanently disabled,” says Afghani. “Most of them were from the same family.”

Today, there are around 270,000 miners working in mines across the country, most of them without any safety. For families such as that of Rehmatullah, there is still someone to feed their children. But hundreds of families have lost all their breadwinners.

Published in Dawn, May 22nd, 2018