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FADE TO BLACK

Coalminers spend their days in utter darkness and are used to working with death looming. But will their children also be forced to take up this deadly profession like those before them?
Updated 31 May, 2020 03:40pm

In Pakistan between a 100 and 200 coal miners die every year. A lot of these workers come from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Shangla district, where children have been growing up without their fathers for generations. Will the boys currently being raised in Shangla break this cycle? Or will they also be forced to take up this deadly profession like those before them?



Sakina and her husband Saeedullah had had this conversation many times before. Neither of them had anything new to add. He was once again leaving their hometown in Shangla district, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, to go work on a coal mine in Balochistan. And she was, yet again, urging him to reconsider.

The young woman told her husband she feared that, like so many colliers from the area, one day his lifeless body will return from the mines. Saeedullah’s response did little to reassure her. “If I die in the coal mine, our children will get compensation,” the daily wage worker told his wife. “If I die of natural causes at home, the kids would get nothing.” End of conversation.

This would be the last time Sakina would speak to Saeedullah. Soon enough, her fears would come true. At the young age of 23, she would become a widow, raising her three-year-old son and one-year-old daughter in a three-marla mud house in Zara village, Shangla.

“He wanted to rebuild his house and get his children educated,” Sakina says, wiping down her tears. She describes her life now as torment. Even two years after the incident, she keeps reliving the devastating moment she saw her husband’s body.

Such stories of departed colliers are not uncommon in Shangla district. A sizable number of the coalminer population around the country comes from this region. It doesn’t matter if an incident occurs at a coalmining facility in Balochistan, Sindh or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; impacts of the incident are always felt in Shangla.

Coal being transported in the Port Qasim area |Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
Coal being transported in the Port Qasim area |Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

According to the Pakistan Mine Worker Federation’s (PMWF) statistics, 186 coalminers died across the country last year. Of those 93, belonged to the Shangla district. On average, the area receives two to five dead bodies a month from different coalmine facilities around the country. And then there are those who are injured or have become permanently disabled.

Many of these men are young. Coal mining is a very physically demanding job and young people are often hired for it. Inevitably then, many young men (and boys), between the ages of 15 and 30, lose their lives too. Leaving behind aging mothers, widows and children.


THE PRICE OF A LIFE

Sakina can no longer argue with her husband, but she believes time has proved him wrong. After his death his family received 120,000 rupees in compensation from the company. But this is not enough to sustain their little family for very long. The compensation money might’ve seemed like a lot to Saeedullah. But any amount would fade in comparison to the loss his family feels.

No amount can bring back Sakina’s husband, the man she built a life with. No amount can bring back her children’s father. And no amount can ‘compensate’ for the way she and her family learnt of Saeedullah’s passing.

According to the Pakistan Mine Worker Federation’s (PMWF) statistics, 186 coalminers died across the country last year. Of those 93, belonged to the Shangla district. On average, the area receives two to five dead bodies a month from different coalmine facilities around the country. And then there are those who are injured or have become permanently disabled.

It was summertime, and Sakina and her children were looking forward to Saeedullah’s return. The peak mining season is during the winters and, so, the demand for miners is the highest between October and March every year. Many miners head home during the summers and look for alternate work, while also spending time with their families.

But instead, Sakina received news that a gas explosion and mudslide had struck the coal mines where her husband worked in the Marwar area. Sixteen people had been killed in the incident. Methane gas had accumulated in three branches linked to the main mine, causing the mines to collapse. All entry and exit points had been blocked after the collapse, and her husband and his co-workers had remained stuck inside for hours before suffocating to death.

The two women, along with dozens of others, waited for their loved ones with their graves prepared beforehand. They were still in disbelief, until the bodies started arriving. Soon enough, scenes of loss were all around them. Nearly two dozen families mourning their dearly departed.

A man stacks bags of coal in Peshawar | Abdul Majid Goraya/White Star
A man stacks bags of coal in Peshawar | Abdul Majid Goraya/White Star

Meanwhile, the incidents made headlines, promises of compensations and better safety standards were made. The Pakistan Central Mines Labour Federation (PMCLF) protested outside the Quetta Press Club and demanded compensation of 2 million rupees for each victim’s family. This demand was, of course, never met.


WHEN THE COMPENSATION DOESN’T COME

At the age of 18 years, Aqal Zeba was barely old enough to have a national identity card when her husband, Irshad, died in a coalmining accident and she became a widow.

The modest house she lives in now was built with borrowed money. In his last conversation with his wife, Irshad had told her, “I will not return unless I have the money to pay back what I have borrowed.”

He, of course, never came back. And neither did the money. He never even saw the fully constructed house or his second child who was born two months after his death.

A coal refinery | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
A coal refinery | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

Aqal Zeba’s husband died in 2019. She has yet to receive compensation from the company her husband worked for. It usually takes about a year for families to receive the compensation amounts. But debt collectors have been frequently knocking on her door. She has inherited her husband’s debt of 190,000 rupees. Even when the compensation does come, it will not be enough to pay everything Irshad owed.

Aqal Zeba now struggles to afford even basic necessities for herself and her children. Her children frequently ask her when their father will return and she does not know what to tell them. She lives in a house with three other widows. Irshad’s brothers had previously died in other coalmining accidents.


A CYCLE OF DEATH

Aqal Zeba’s family is not alone. There are many households in Shangla where multiple family members have lost their lives to the curse of coal mining. For some, these losses have continued for generations.

History was repeating itself in Sakina and Bakht Bibi’s family too. Sakina had lost her husband in a deadly incident at a coal mine in Balochistan, much like her mother-in-law had years ago. Sakina was about to raise her two children alone, just like her mother-in-law had, after Saeedullah and his brother Abdul Haq lost their father when they were eight and six years old. After their father’s passing, they had to leave their education due to financial constraints, and were forced to leave home to work at a coal mine in Balochistan. Now Saeedullah’s children had also left school.

Some boys working as coalminers are as young as 15 years old. Many are hired when they are in the best shape of their life. Physical strength is directly linked to one’s wages. The coalminers may make between 700 and 1,200 rupees per tonne of coal, and up to 2,100 to 3,600 rupees a day.

“Poverty and a lack of job opportunities are the main factors that force the local people of Shangla district to consider coal-cutting work,” says Ali Bash Khan, the senior vice president of PMWF. “The fact is that mine incidents occur due to the negligence of inspectors, contractors and managers,” Bash Khan adds. “They do not care about the humans.”

Contractors often recruit coalminers by coming to restaurants, where they target younger men. They offer them advance money. They tell them that they can make as much as 60,000 rupees a month. They tell them this is a sure-shot way of supporting their families.

The young men do not necessarily buy it. After all, many of them have lost their brothers, fathers and relatives in deadly accidents at coal mines. The recruiters may be crafty salespeople, but no amount of craft can make these young boys forget the fate of their fathers. No one can paint a picture so rosy it would make them forget the mental images of their loved one’s dead bodies, burnt beyond recognition.

Handprints of coalminers at a railway station near Quetta | Mohammad Ali/White Star
Handprints of coalminers at a railway station near Quetta | Mohammad Ali/White Star

It is the lack of employment options that makes them leave for coal mines. There are no factories around them and no job opportunities to speak of. When it comes to choosing between lives and livelihood, many are forced to choose livelihood.

Twelve-year-old Wahidullah and his 10-year-old brother often see the recruiters pitching the coalmining jobs to young men at the restaurant where they work. The boys earn about 300 rupees every day at the restaurant. Wahidullah had to leave school and start working when his father and 15 other coalminers from Shangla were abducted in 2011. The men have not been recovered yet.

“I would like to get an education,” Wahidullah says. “But I have to earn for my sibling.” He plans to become a coalminer. He is confident that when he is a little older and a little stronger, he will be able to make a decent living as a coalminer.


WORKING CONDITIONS

Like Wahidullah, many youngsters in Shangla plan to start working at coal mines once they have the physical strength the job requires. Some boys working as coalminers are as young as 15 years old. Many are hired when they are in the best shape of their life.

Physical strength is directly linked to one’s wages. The coalminers may make between 700 and 1,200 rupees per tonne of coal, and up to 2,100 to 3,600 rupees a day.

Now-22-year-old Ikramullah was also in great shape when he first started working as a coalminer. But he was injured in a mine incident three years ago. His leg was injured and he was no longer physically fit to continue working at the mine.

Ikramullah’s father, who had also worked at different mines for 30 years, developed a respiratory issue. According to the Shangla Coal Mine Workers Association (SCMWA), around 4,000 coalminers (both active and those who were formerly employed) suffer from lung illnesses in Shangla district alone.

Men work overtime at a coal godown in Islamabad | Mohammad Asim/White Star
Men work overtime at a coal godown in Islamabad | Mohammad Asim/White Star

The adverse effects of coalmining on miners’ respiratory systems have long been documented. In fact, a lung disease caused by inhaling coal dust over a long period of time is called coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP), more commonly referred to as black lung disease.

Rahimuddin, who worked as a coalminer for 14 years, has black lung disease and is bedridden. Every day is a struggle for Rahimuddin, as he is unable to afford medicines for himself and put food on the table for his family. Such cases are not uncommon. Abid Yaar, president of SCMWA, says two to five men from every household in Ghorband and Kana tehsils of Shangla are working as coalminers, and nearly every house has patients suffering from black lung disease.

Lala Sultan, PMWF’s president, says that while laws exist for the safety and welfare of the coalminers, the lack of their implementation is the reason behind the consistently high levels of coal mine incidents, injuries and deaths. “Mines that have been declared vulnerable should be shut down,” he says. There are many protections in the law for the coalminers.

Many households have no men at all. They are either away working at coal mines most of the year, or have died at the job. In these households, women like Sakina and Aqal Zeba have had to take up additional responsibilities. Raising their children alone, after the life they once knew was snatched from them brutally.

But the situation at Niaz Badshah’s home is different. Last year was the toughest time in Badshah’s life, but his struggles were just beginning. First his wife and unborn child died owing to complications in a pregnancy. His other son was already suffering from kidney disease. And then the young man was paralysed after his backbone was damaged in a coal mine in the Charat area of Kohat. Bedridden, he struggles to support his son.

Coal being dumped | White Star
Coal being dumped | White Star

“I am concerned for my child,” he says. “I’m only breathing for him now.” Badshah does not even have the money required for his son’s treatment. “I only want his treatment,” he says. “I don’t have the required amount.”

Badshah should have the required amount — and then some. But, Ali Bash Khan, PMWF’s senior vice president says, even though several coalminers are paralysed permanently during incidents at coal mines, neither the companies nor the government supports them.


RULE OF LAW

There is no shortage of legislation to support coalminers. The Mines Act, 1923, as the name suggests, has been around in this region since before Pakistan’s existence. The comprehensive Act gives considerable authority to inspectors appointed by the provincial governments.

These inspectors can inspect the mines at any time and ensure that the operation is in compliance of the regulations.

Coal being unloaded in Landhi, Karachi | Fahim Siddiqi, White Star
Coal being unloaded in Landhi, Karachi | Fahim Siddiqi, White Star

Ikramullah, who worked as a coalminer for three years, says that, during his time at various coal mines he never saw a single inspector come and inspect the mine. But a local contractor constantly monitored the colliers’ work.

In December last year, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Mines Safety, Inspection and Regulation Act, 2019, was also passed. While the apparently pro-worker Act has many provisions that would benefit coalminers, a very noteworthy section of the law says that no person below the age of 18 or above the age of 60 can be employed as a coalminer. They may only be part of managerial or supervisory positions.

The law also mandates maintaining ‘proper’ working hours and states that no collier will work for more than six days a week. It further says that basic facilities such as conservancies, canteens, shelters, mine office and medical appliances shall be provided at every mine.

According to some international reports, coalminers are more at-risk when it comes to the coronavirus...Yet, most coalminers in Shangla plan to go back to work. They are used to working with death looming. These men leave behind their picturesque hometowns — the beautiful mountains, the open skies and fresh air. They spend their days in utter darkness, with coal dust on their faces and mining lights and hats on their heads.

As per Section 37(1) of the law, all workers, whether they work above or below ground, shall be medically examined at intervals determined by the chief inspector. But these clauses are rarely implemented. According to a Dawn report published last year, stakeholders said that the government was under pressure to legislate following a series of incidents in the coal mines of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that led to the death of dozens of workers in the last few years.

Lala Sultan, PMWF’s president, says that while laws exist for the safety and welfare of the coalminers, the lack of their implementation is the reason behind the consistently high levels of coal mine incidents, injuries and deaths. “Mines that have been declared vulnerable should be shut down,” he says. There are many protections in the law for the coalminers. For example, the mine should be of a specific size, it must have two paths, and employers must ensure the provision of safety equipment. With regular inspection of mines and by following these protocols, Sultan believes, the number of incidents would decrease dramatically.


NO ONE TO THE RESCUE

There are 1,924 mines in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. But apparently the province has only 14 mine crews, which can reach a mine for rescue operations in the event of an incident. The 14 crews reportedly have only five gas detectors between them, which are also not fully functional. And there is a severe lack of breathing apparatuses. The lack of universal testing machines for mine inspection also endangers the life of the mine crew; without the proper equipment and training, the crew would not only be unable to rescue the colliers, but would be endangering their own lives.

The site of the Thar Coal project situated near Islamkot | Mohammad Ali/White Star
The site of the Thar Coal project situated near Islamkot | Mohammad Ali/White Star

The lack of allocation of resources could also be owing to the fact that about 60 percent of the coal mines in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have supposedly not been registered by the mine owners. The Minister for Labour Welfare and Culture, Shaukat Ali Yousafzai, who is also the MPA from Shangla, says he had directed the authorities to register all the workers and mines with the government, but the “mafia” behind the coal mines would be exposed in the campaign. Yousafzai believes that companies may be putting the lives of coalminers at risk at unregistered sites. It was because of this that he worked on a bill for the coalminers’ safety at their workplace, he says. “I have also directed the authorities concerned to immediately register all the unregistered mines across the province,” he says. Stressing that the coalminers must be registered with the province, the minister says that registered workers can enjoy many benefits, and registration is a “basic requirement.”


MINING AND THE VIRUS

Within a few months of my meeting Yousafzai, the world around us has changed — significantly and quickly, because of the Covid-19 pandemic and its resultant lockdowns. Thousands of coalminers have returned to Shangla from across the country. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s mining department has started giving registered miners (working in the province) a stipend, while those who were not previously registered are being registered. It is summertime, so many workers are back home as they usually are. But these workers do not know what their future holds. Some of them work underground with little ventilation. Social distancing protocols can hardly be followed in these conditions.

According to some international reports, coalminers are more at-risk when it comes to the coronavirus. An April 19 article published in The Guardian details how, for sick coalminers with infected lungs, Covid-19 could be a “death sentence”. “It’s easier for us to get sick because of lung damage. We get colds easier,” John Robinson, a former coalminer diagnosed with black lung, told the publication. “We pick up germs easier. It’s something we deal with all of the time. But Covid-19 has it doubled up on us.” Yet, most coalminers in Shangla plan to go back to work. They are used to working with death looming. These men leave behind their picturesque hometowns — the beautiful mountains, the open skies and fresh air. They spend their days in utter darkness, with coal dust on their faces and mining lights and hats on their heads. They do it all for their families, knowing fully well that they could be gone suddenly, never able to even say a proper goodbye.

Bakht Zada, a 42-year-old coalminer, says he recites Quranic verses before sitting in the trolley and starting to cut the coal. In the 26 years he’s worked as a coalminer in Darra Adamkhel, he has witnessed over a dozen mine incidents. “What do we have in Shangla? Are there any jobs? Any means for us to feed our families?” he asks. “I work as a miner to provide for my family. I take a risk for them. You know the government has done nothing for us in Shangla.”


Header image by Mohammad Ali, White Star


The writer is a journalist based in Shangla. He tweets @Umar_Shangla