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Dangerous depths

August 17, 2018

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WHILE the country watched the induction of the newly elected parliamentarians and celebrated the 71st Independence Day, it was business as usual in the extractive sector in Pakistan, a business that claimed the lives of 15 coalminers in the dark alleys underground on Aug 13-14. The immediate cause, as reported, was methane gas explosion. Or, faulty blasting technique as asserted by the trade union federation.

Perhaps the cause or causes of the accident in the coalmine will never be known. Was it faulty ventilation and a flawed alarm system, inadequate illumination intensity, invisible hazard signage and the absence of an emergency and evacuation plan, or the lack of workers’ training, or a combination of all?

Let us set aside the question of why our coalminers could not be rescued and why many rescue operations in other countries are successful, eg Chile where 33 miners trapped for 69 days were rescued; China where 115 miners were pulled out after eight days, and in Russia; where 44 miners were saved in 36 hours. It is for sociologists and for political economists to analyse why such incidents do not create a ripple and why human life is valued so little in our society.

It has been oft said that the extractive ind­us­try of mining and quarries in the country is riddled with many ills such as fragmentation (small-scale mining) and “outdated mana­gement techniques, inadequate capital and antique technical know-how” as stated in the latest Economic Survey. What the official document does not acknowledge is the lack of transparency that afflicts the sector. Fiscal and legal arrangements and operations of the extractive sector are not shared by stakeholders and neither are the allocation of licences/leases and registration of contracts. The names of beneficial owners (often tribal chi­efs and political elite) are not disseminated.

Mine inspectors do not share reports of accidents.

Details of production, revenues, workforce and work conditions, including safety and health are difficult to access. Mine inspectors do not share reports of accidents with key stakeholders — workers and trade unions — who allege that inspectors connive with owners and contractors. Lack of information in the sector undermines media coverage, follow-ups, investigative reporting as well as academic research.

Pakistan has a rich mineral resource base and the state is keen to develop and expand the extractive sector seeking foreign investment. With CPEC in progress, it is likely that foreign mining companies, particularly Chinese, which have been granted exploration licences for various minerals, would be operating large-scale mines and quarries in the years to come. Large-scale mining is already in place, as at Thar Coal Block II.

Does it imply that corporate mining would be safer because corporations would be complying with labour, safety, health and environmental laws? We do not know because the corporate sector does not share information on these matters. Their websites do not contain any information on workforce, labour co­­m­pliance and/or codes of conduct. The catchword is CSR which talks mainly of (voluntary) responsibilities towards the community, and not about workers’ legal entitlements.

The corporate sector must disseminate information on good practices concerning workers’ safety and other rights. It would only enhance their corporate image — or would it not?

Since Pakistan views itself as poised towards change (in governance and structures) and looking for foreign investment to realise the potential of its natural resource base in a big way, it is time the country aligned itself with the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.

The EITI, the global standard to “promote the open and accountable management of extractive resources”, founded in 2002, is a coalition of countries, companies and civil society (inclusive of trade unions), and has 51 member countries across Europe, Africa and Asia. It requires member countries and companies to disclose information on their governance and management systems of extractive resources.

Transparency and dissemination of information in the extractive sector, be it large, or small-scale mining, strengthen checks and balance and go a long way in making stakeholders realise the gravity of the issues and push for redress.

From prospecting and exploration to development and exploitation, and finally to closure and reclamation, all the stages in the life of a mine call for strict laws regulating each and every process, particularly those that involve human life. Underground mining is risky.

In a 2018 research based on a collection of accident statistics, incident reports, inspection reports and field visits to the underground coalmines in Odisha, India, D.P Tripathy and C.K. Ala identified 172 hazard events categorised as “human, machine/tool, work methods/procedural, and work environment/managerial hazards”. Effective risk management is the key to safety in underground mines.

The writer is a researcher in the development sector.

zeenathisam2004@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, August 17th, 2018