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Coal mines or death traps

23 workers were killed in Marwar and Sorange recently. Such accidents present an urgent need to ensure safety measures

Coal mines or death traps
Workers gather outside the collapsed mine in Marwar, Balochistan. Courtesy: AFP

The most recent accident took place on May 5 when more than 23 workers were killed in two separate incidents due to explosions inside coal mines in Marwar and Sorange. Officials of Mines department told TNS that the coal mine workers were working 3,000 feet below the surface of the earth when the blasts took place, blocking the exit. According to the inquiry report, accumulation of methane, an inflammable gas, caused the explosions after they got ignited by sparks in the mines. The inquiry on the spot suggested that the incidents were due to gross negligence, as the owners of the coal mine companies did not follow safety measures.

Chief Inspector Mines Iftikhar Ahmed claims that coal mine accidents occur due to labourers’ negligence. According to the data of the provincial mines department 50 to 70 coal mine workers die annually due to mining accidents.

The Labour Union of Mines holds coal companies responsible for such tragic incidents. They allege that safety measures are not taken at most coal mines in the province. They demand that the government take action against mine owners who do not provide necessary safety equipment and do not follow safety rules and regulations.

Chaman Khan, a coal mine worker told TNS there is no concept of safety equipment in the mine which caused the death of 23 mine workers. 

Coal mining in Balochistan commenced during the early 20th century when coal extracted from the province was used in brick kilns in Punjab, Sindh and NWFP; to meet the requirements of many power houses; and fulfill the needs of the North-Western Railways, now called Pakistan Railways.

The market was vast, and the labour was cheap and abundant, so the industry flourished. Some of the prominent fields included Sorange, Degari, Mach, Khost and Shahrig. Here, coal miners earned their bread and butter while the mine owners minted their fortunes.

Nobody bothered to plan ahead or streamline coal production to meet the challenges the future might present. Balochistan’s government took it upon itself to allot the coal sites without considering whether the allottee was serious about mining and whether he had the capital to purchase standard equipment and technical back up for safety in the mines.

“We have just nine inspectors to visit 5,000 mines in Balochistan. It means that one mine can be inspected only once in two to three years,” says Chief Inspector Coal Mining Balochistan.

Mostly, coal mining is carried out by private contractors who abide by the 1923 Coal Mine Act. There are more than 5,000 coal mines in Balochistan and over 50,000 mine workers, yielding 300 tonnes of coal annually. The coal field of Mach and Sorange produce 100,000 tonnes of coal annually. The coal field of Dukki and Harnai provide 140,000 tonnes coal. Over 60,000 tonnes of coal is produced from other coal fields of Balochistan. However, there are many unregistered coal mines that are out of bounds for officials of the Inspectorate of Mines. The Balochistan Mines and Minerals Department collects Rs2.5 billion from taxes and royalty.

The apathy of provincial government departments in charge of implementing mining laws badly affected the modern development of coal mining. Consequently, most of the mines were just narrow holes without ventilation or trolley system to bring out the coal.

An ILO report in the mid 1990s said that the casualties of coal miners in Balochistan is the highest in the world. 29.9 coal mine workers are killed while excavating one million tonnes of coal. The report further said that most fatalities in coal mines are due to poor equipment, and the non-existence or poor maintenance of working standards.

In case of casualty, the workers were once paid a mere Rs30,000 as compensation by mine owners, which has now increased to Rs200,000. The government has enhanced the amount of compensation up to Rs5 lac. “The amount of compensation must be increased,” demands Bakhat Nawab, the president of Central Mines Federation, urging the government to ensure safety measures in Balochistan’s coal mines.

“We have to face numerous problems while working in the coal mines without ventilation and other safety measures. Most of the time we have to work without helmets,” says Omer Gul, a coal mine worker from Swat. The miners follow layers of coal and when the layers break, they abandon the site and begin digging in another direction. Without surveys and technical support many deposits are abandoned before proper exploitation.

Coal miners wait for the recovery of their colleagues in Quetta. Courtesy: Jamal Taraqai/EPA

Coal miners wait for the recovery of their colleagues in Quetta. Courtesy: Jamal Taraqai/EPA

The government seems oblivious of the gravity of the situation. Coal mining is primarily done by digging tunnels and then creating makeshift support structures to hold the roof steady. The moment the miner enters the coal mine he is in danger. A slight mistake in roof timbering and rock-bolting can cost him his life.

These aspects of mining are taken very seriously in most countries. There are rules and regulations, mining codes and strict inspections of methods used for minimising the dangers. “We have just nine inspectors to visit some 5,000 mines in the province. It simply means that one mine can be inspected only once in two to three years,” says Iftikhar Ahmed, Chief Inspector Coal Mining Balochistan.

Despite growing unemployment in the country, the number of coal mine workers is on rise. The majority of these coal miners are ethnic Pashtuns. Since most of the coal mines are situated in Balochistan and Sindh, these workers come to earn a living far away from their homes in rural Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Expressing his concern, Nawab, of the Central Mines Federation says, “Coal mine workers excavate thousands of feet below the earth. The availability of clean drinking water and presence of doctors near Balochistan’s mining areas is a mere dream for them,” he deplores. “The mine owners and the provincial government does not care to address their problems.”

The Coal Labour Union is also concerned about the increasing number of fatal accidents in Balochistan’s coal mines. A member of the union told TNS that mine owners do not make necessary safety arrangements at coal mines in interior Balochistan but the member adds that the Mines Department is also to blame for this lack of security.

Miners risk their life and limbs in mining operations. Not enough resources are made available to install a strong anti-roof collapse system; mechanical and grouted bolting mechanisms; fibrous concrete cribs; and pressure sensors for measuring loads on pillars and the rest.

Mining, in general, is dangerous and coal mining, the largest and oldest industry of Balochistan, even more so. Most accidents occur 1,500 to 5,000 feet below the surface. The inherent dangers of mining are made deadlier by the terrible working conditions, and the poor security and monitoring arrangements for mining work. It would indeed be a remarkable if the province improves the working conditions in the industry since coal mining is the only indigenous industry of the province.

Muhammad Ejaz Khan

3 comments

  • Amjad Bashir Siddiqi

    Excellent write up. Very comprehensively done.

  • Wonderful piece about the plight of coal miners

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