In the past eight years, more than 318 labourers working in coal mines have been killed in the course of their employment in Balochistan.
In the last one month and a half alone, 17 labourers died in Balochistan in two separate incidents.
In one of these incidents, labourers were digging 300 feet deep in a coal mine owned by a local company in Bolan district, where they reportedly suffocated to death on account of lack of oxygen.
The other incident occurred due to an explosion in a coal mine in the Sanjdi area of Balochistan, claiming the lives of 15 labourers.
According to government sources, there are at least 20,000 labourers employed across Balochistan in 2,500 mines.
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Balochistan is also not the only province with an abysmal safety record regarding its coal mines. Nine labourers working in a coal mine in Darra Adamkhel, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa perished and another four sustained burn injuries in a blast caused by the accumulation of gas in the coal mine on September 12, 2018.
According to the Pakistan Central Mines Labour Federation, casualties from accidents among labourers working in coal mines range from 100 to 200 every year.
Coal mining has historically been fraught with hazards, which are similar to those associated with the aftermath of natural disasters: suffocation, gas poisoning, roof collapse, rock burst, gas explosions and a plethora of lung diseases, including incurable diseases like coalworker's pneumoconiosis, also known as black lung disease.
These risks can be substantially mitigated with the adoption of the requisite safety measures.
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The Mines Act, 1923, and the regulations framed under this Act stipulate a fairly extensive safety and labour welfare regime that must be enacted and observed at all mines.
Under this Act, the key position empowered to carry out and verify the implementation of the Act is that of the chief inspector and the inspectors appointed, pursuant to the Eighteenth Amendment, by the provincial governments.
These inspectors have the authority to inspect any mine to verify that the operation of the mine is in compliance with the provisions of the Act and the regulations framed thereunder, and are obligated, after receiving information or a notice of an accident in or about the mine causing a loss of life, to hold an inquiry on the accident.
The inspectors and the appointing authorities have done woefully little, if anything at all, in the face of repeated preventable mining accidents on account of non-observation of law and the applicable safety standards.
If there has been any statutory mandated inquiry, then its recommendations or any information about sustained penal action against the culpable has been guarded as a national security secret.
For example, despite 45 documented incidents resulting in more than 318 deaths in the last eight years, the Chief Inspector Mines of Balochistan has not prosecuted even a single mine owner/manager for criminal negligence under the Mines Act.
Similarly, Director General Mines and Mineral Balochistan, who is adequately empowered under the Balochistan Mineral Rules, 2002, to cancel the mining licenses of licensees who fail to discharge their obligations concerning health and safety, has not cancelled a single licence of those who were directly or indirectly responsible for more than these 318 deaths.
Ironically, Balochistan's present chief inspector indulged in classic victim blaming after a week in which eight labourers working in coal mines lost their lives in three different accidents, arguing that accidents in coal mine occurred on account of the negligence of the labourers and their sense of hurry.
The labourers, however, tell a different story in a documentary titled Black Mountain: a day in a life of coal miners in Pakistan, and unsurprisingly, do not, contrary to the assertion of the chief inspector, acknowledge being daredevils putting their life in serious risk for good sport.
Most of the labourers working in coal mines in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa hail from Shangla and Afghanistan.
Working on paltry wages, a substantial number say that they were offered a loan by the owners of the coal mines early on their employment.
This loan was to be repaid through the salary of the labourer, and until this loan is repaid, the labourer is barred from leaving.
With no written contract or formal terms of such loans, whether the loan along with the interest has been repaid in full is a question that the owners and their representatives can decide per their discretion.
Unemployment and no serious alternate job prospects in their home regions also mean labourers cannot leave or turn down the job, once offered, if they want to make a living.
The labourers consequently have no negotiating power to turn down any directive from the mine management and are hardly in a position to argue about inadequate safety.
The law accords special protection to labourers working in mines, partly because of the hazardous nature of the employment, but also partly because it recognises that labourers will not be able to negotiate or affect a safe working environment for themselves on account of the inherent power asymmetry that exists between them and the owner and management of the mines.
At substantial distance from their home communities and with no political connections or representation in their new areas, the labourers working in the coal mines of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, are especially vulnerable.
The silent deaths of many of these labourers seldom appear as more than a small news story.
Unions, another instrument of diluting this power asymmetry, have also been systematically dismantled, leaving an individual worker entirely at the whims of the management and owner of the mines.
Similarly, political parties, barring exceptions like the Awami Workers' Party, do not seriously take up labour issues.
It is telling that since taking oath, the new prime minister has not once broached the subject of labour rights in his speeches or made labour a part of his 100-day agenda.
The Mines Act, 1923, also entitles labourers suffering from medical ailments commonly associated with working in mines to medical allowance expense from inspectors, and inspectors are consequently supposed to recover this expense from the relevant mine the labourer was working at the time the labourer contracted the medical ailment.
According to a member of the Balochistan Mines Workers Federation, Bakht Nawab, 75 per cent of the labourers working in coal mines reportedly suffer from some medical ailment associated with working in coal mines, hepatitis and tuberculosis being the most common ones.
The owners and management of the mine typically try to recruit labourers through a sub-contractor to obfuscate their responsibility and liability for the safety and welfare of the employed labourers.
Whether this practice ultimately extinguishes the responsibility of the owners and management towards the recruited labourers is a disputable question.
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Nonetheless, this is often used as a defence by the owners and management of mines to deny responsibility in the rare instance of legal proceedings initiated by a labourer.
The offices of the inspectors are underfunded and understaffed on account of the continued apathy of the provincial governments that appoint inspectors and are responsible for their performance, and inspectors continue to get away with the non-performance of their statutory duties.
Until the provincial governments and political parties start taking this issue more seriously, despite the small political luggage associated with the problem, and make a serious effort to implement the law, accidents in coal mines resulting in the loss of life will continue to happen consistently.
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