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Herald exclusive: Mines of misery

May 17, 2011

At times even the haulage trolleys used for carrying coal outside the mines can be lethal. Tied to metal ropes, they hurl down their tracks into the mines at high speeds. If a miner has to stop them, he does not have any mechanical means available to him. The only way for him to stop it is to jump in front of a fast-moving trolley and try to hold it back using his own body as brakes. – Herald Photo


At 21 years, Abdul Rahman is too young to be out of work. Since he lost his right leg in a recent mining accident at Dukki in Balochistan's Loralai district he has been unable to find a new job. He was working at a coal mine in the area when it had caved in, trapping him under the rubble and fracturing his leg.

Barely making 8,000 rupees per month back then and with a wife and two children to feed, he did not have the financial resources to avail treatment in Quetta or any other big city. After some time, the fractured leg had to be amputated as it showed no signs of healing. Since then Rahman has been reduced to penury, him and his family dependent on his younger brother who also works at a mine in Balochistan's Chamalang region.

Such accidents and consequent human tragedies are quite common in the mining areas of the province given that accident prevention measures, and safety mechanism and regulations at mines are completely absent. Mining in Balochistan is still done the hard old way: miners dig coal from tunnels, which on an average are 8,000 feet deep, and then carry it to the surface on their back in gunny bags weighing about 100 kilogrammes. Haulage trolleys are available in a few mines only, and that too for just half the distance. The mine ceiling is supported by wood pillars and any change in surface pressure – for instance, due to water accumulation, floods or landslides – can destabilise and weaken it. At times it collapses and traps miners inside.

However, such obsolete practices are in violation of the provincial mining laws, Mines Act 1923 and the Balochistan Mining Rules 2002, which require mines to be excavated with latest mining engineering techniques. The laws call upon engineers from the mines department to conduct regular inspection and assess the strength of the supporting structures in the mine, provision of proper lighting, ventilation and exhaust mechanisms for the emission of highly combustible gases. The law also makes it mandatory for the miners to observe safety guidelines, including wearing oxygen masks, and safety shoes, uniforms and helmets.

But as with all provisions of the law, these exist only on paper. None of the mines that the Herald visited in Balochistan had personal protective equipment available. At most of them, the miners did not even have proper safety helmets. Moreover, no arrangement was in place to ensure that methane did not accumulate inside the mines or that the ceilings were stable. One obvious conclusion: no government official has ever inspected those mines according to the letter and spirit of the Mining Act.

Faisal Abbas of the Balochistan Environmental and Educational Journey, a non-governmental organisation, says that the mine owners are to blame for not providing workers with basic safety gear. His organisation has arranged seminars to educate miners about their safety, and to remind the mine owners and the government inspectors of their respective responsibilities. "To ensure the safety of the miners, inspectors must conduct thorough checks, from gauging the strength of wooden pillars supporting the ceiling to environmental factors in and around. But they rarely ever do their job properly," he alleges.

Under the law, the mine owners are also supposed to provide for special testing equipment such as gas detectors, digital sensors and safety lamps to keep check on the accumulation of hazardous gases and materials inside the mines. But the miners say the only thing they have approaching close to these gadgets is a spirit lamp with an open flame, a rather dicey contraption; firstly, it sucks oxygen lowering its levels and making breathing difficult, and secondly, the gases can be set alight by the flame.

Miners narrate numerous incidents in which their co-workers suffered severe injuries, some fatal, due to dangerous levels of combustible gases. Mohammad Bashir, a worker at a mine owned by the Pakistan Mineral Development Corporation in Sorange, tells the Herald that in 2008 he survived a fatal explosion but 14 of his co-workers died due to suffocation and burns. “I lost consciousness but am lucky to have survived,” he recalls.

Thirty-year-old Abdul Karim was in a similar incident at a mine in Dukki about 10 years ago and received severe burns. His skin acquired secondary bacterial infection and he still has blisters and abscesses over his entire body. "I still suffer from fever and am not able to work," Karim says. "But the mine contractor did not help in my treatment."

At times even the haulage trolleys used for carrying coal outside the mines can be lethal. Tied to metal ropes, they hurl down their tracks into the mines at high speeds. If a miner has to stop them, he does not have any mechanical means available to him. The only way for him to stop it is to jump in front of a fast-moving trolley and try to hold it back using his own body as brakes. "Workers get hurt while getting on or off such trolleys," says a miner.

But the absence of equipment and safety measures are not the only problems that the miners have to contend with. The mines are narrow labyrinthine structures, sometimes going hundreds of feet horizontally and then dipping down vertically by the same measure. Miners have to walk – and at times crawl due to the low height of the ceiling – to their workstation. In some mines it can take them up to two hours just to reach their destination and the same amount of time to exit from there. Consequently, they end up being inside the mines much longer than their usual shift.

Since the journey to their workstation is perilous, miners move and work in groups.

They claim that this way they can help one another if caught in danger, though ironically when a disaster does strike the high number of casualties is attributable to this mindset of working close to each other.

The extremely dangerous nature of the mining operations necessitates that the government agencies and departments responsible for overseeing their operations are extra careful in ensuring safety and security of the mine workers. But this is as far from the situation on the ground as it possibly can be. The best that the government officers do is issue notices to mine owners who fail to put in place safety mechanisms. The only follow-up on the issued notices is that the mine owners are fined for their failure but the penalties are so miniscule that they never induce compliance to the laws. For instance, the government fines a mine owner as little as 2,000 rupees if a miner dies inside his mine due to the owner's negligence.

Iftikhar Ahmed, Balochistan’s chief inspector of mines, acknowledges that there are lapses on part of the mine owners. "Miners never receive the requisite safety gear nor are the necessary mechanisms in place. Government inspectors do inspect mines and issue notices to those flouting rules," he claims.

He adds that the Balochistan Mines Department organises training sessions for the miners to educate them about safety measures but the miners are not interested in attending them. The reason is not indifference to their own safety but the fact that they cannot afford to leave work to attend a seminar. "They do not want to do so due to financial problems," says Mushtaq Ahmed Raeesani, the department's secretary. He also accuses the mine owners of non-cooperation. "Mine owners do not cooperate with the department in connection with the provision of safety equipment to their workers," he says. But, Raeesani says, the government is planning to "collect five rupees per tonne of coal from mine owners and spend the money thus collected to provide safety equipment to the miners as well as give them an allowance if and when they attend a training course."

This may take care of some part of the problem. But a major reason why working conditions are bad at the mines lies in the ownership and operational structure of the mines. The mine owners do not actually own the mines; they are long leased from the government. They are then sublet to contractors, delegating the whole responsibility of operating the mine with all the risks involved. Although this is an illegal arrangement, the authorities have always turned a blind eye towards it despite the fact that it affects the safety and the security of the workers in a huge way. Since the contractors are not the legal operators of the mines, the law cannot hold them responsible for the absence of safety measures and equipment as well as accidents. This leaves them under no compulsion to think about the miners' safety. Because legally they are not responsible for anything that is wrong at a mine they, therefore, also cannot be held accountable for that. Raeesani says his department is trying to change this by making rules under which the owners as well as the contractors will both be held responsible in case of any accident.

The other negative effect of this illegal ownership and operational pattern is that no mine owner loses his lease after an accident, passing the buck on to the contractor. "Inquiries into fatal accidents are routinely conducted but mines allotment are never cancelled because most of the mines are operated by contractors which saves the mine owners from any strict action," says Bakht Nawab Yousufzai, the president of the Balochistan National Mines Workers Union.

Contractors complain that they do not earn much to be able to spare money for the safety measures. "High quality coal sells at 9,000-10,000 rupees per tonne. After paying 2,000 rupees per tonne to the mine owner and meeting other expenses including the wages of the workers, we earn only 4,000 rupees for each tonne of high quality coal that we extract," a contractor in Dukki tells the Herald. "This leaves us with a thin margin of profit," he claims, "forcing us to cut down expenses on the provision of basic facilities inside the mines."

Clearly, only a strict application of law can ensure that such considerations for profit do not override the requirements for the safety of the miners.

The Herald is Pakistan’s premier current affairs magazine published by the Dawn Media Group every month from Karachi.