Pakistan is rich in mineral resources, including coal that is being extracted since colonial times and used in running locomotive engines, factories, brick kilns, etc. There are substantial reserves in all the four provinces with Sindh topping the list with an estimated 184 billion tonnes of coal reserves.
These reserves include huge deposits in Thar coalfield that were discovered in 1991 by the Geological Survey of Pakistan (GSP) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). After this discovery, the country is ranked high among those with some of the biggest coal reserves in the world.
There are two major types of coalmining in Pakistan — surface/open-pit mining and underground mining. In open-pit mining, coal is extracted from the surface of coalfields with the help of heavy machinery, whereas in underground mining manual labour is used to extract coal from the mines dug deeper into the ground. The first type of mining is being done in Thar, whereas the second method has been deployed for ages.
While open-pit mining is comparatively safe, underground mining is full of hazards and needs extraordinary care and measures to save manual labourers from deaths, injuries and occupational diseases. The situation in Pakistan is quite alarming as can be seen in the form of figures compiled over time. After every few months, there is news of a major disaster at a coalmine and resulting deaths and injuries. Balochistan province has the most such occurrences but still its level of safety laws’ implementation is far from satisfactory.
As per the figures compiled by Pakistan Central Mines Labour Federation, there have been 46 incidents of major accidents in coalmines in the country during the last few years. These have resulted in at least 327 deaths and a large number of injuries. These are estimates and the actual number can be much higher. These deaths were caused primarily due to suffocation, burial under the falling roofs of the coalmines, accidents involving load-carrying vehicles and burnings in explosions caused inside the coalmines.
It is a pity that the mine-owners and their management staff do not take required precautionary measures. The workers sometimes become the very cause of these fatal accidents. For example, it has been observed that workers in some areas still carry oil lanterns inside coalmines instead of electric lamps for illumination purposes, although this is against the law. It is the responsibility of mine owners to ensure no person with such a lamp is allowed inside. They take this risk despite knowing that flames of these lamps can ignite methane gas and cause explosion.
Another practice is that the workers enter those parts of coalmines prohibited due to likely presence of hazardous gases and get suffocated. There are reported cases where workers had gone to these areas to relieve themselves instead of going out of the mine for this purpose and got exposed to these hazardous gases. Here too the responsibility of mine owners is paramount who need to provide adequate laterine facilities near the surface.
“There are strict guidelines under local laws and as per international guidelines regarding adoption of health and safety measures at coalmines but many of these are ignored,” says Khalid Mahmood, Director, Labour Education Foundation (LEF), a non-profit working for the rights of workers in Pakistan.
Mahmood complains the coalmines’ inspection mechanism is quite weak and there is a severe shortage of mining department staff to inspect coalmines on a regular basis. An inspector can visit a coalmine occasionally but the workers need clearance every day before starting their work. He shares there is a “Mine Sardar” at every coalmine who inspects it in the morning and allows work only if finds it safe. But the issue, he says, is that he is on the payroll of the coalmine owners/lessee and cannot assert himself much. “A mine sardar can play a better role if on government’s payroll and answerable to it.”
Coal mining is done in Pakistan through ages old labour-intensive technology. The coal veins inside mountains are blasted with the help of explosives and the coal is hauled out of the mines using donkeys, manually driven carts and haulages pulled by electric power. Risk of accidents due to fall-out from these explosions is also high. Yet another major cause of deaths and injuries are the accidents caused by malfunctioning of mechanical haulage systems working at coalmines. Workers sitting on coal-laden wagons or coming in their way may fall or get hit critically.
Saeed Khattak, a labour leader in Chakwal region and coalmine workers’ trainer, says the coalmines in Punjab are comparatively safe compared to those in Balochistan. The reason he cites is that the seam of coal layer is far thinner here due to which gases do not form in high quantities. But even then, he says, “there is need to spread awareness about safety among coalmine workers as well as employers across the country.” The incidence is high in Balochistan because there are small-time mine owners there in large numbers who want to cut on input expenses even at the cost of workers’ lives. He says the seam of coal found there is extraordinarily thick, resulting in release of hazardous gases in large quantities.
Khattak suggests there should be gadgets available at coalmines to detect collection of gases like methane and hydrogen sulfide, inflammable coal dust and oxygen level in the air. Inspection of winding ropes should also be done to avoid breakage and falling of coal transport vehicles. Besides, he says, there should be arrangements to avoid inrushes of water into coalmines, thus causing flooding.
Naseem Chaudhry of the Pakistan Workers’ Federation (PWF) points out that Pakistan is yet to ratify certain ILO conventions on workplace safety.
Apart from risks of death and serious injury, coalmine workers are confronted by serious occupational health hazards. A study conducted on this topic by NUST says hearing loss is quite common among coalmine workers as blasting and production of electricity via diesel electricity generators create immense noise. Besides, continuous vibration in the coalmines causes spinal cord disorders.
Similarly, continuous exposures to coal dust cause asthma and tuberculosis. The respiratory problems ultimately develop into incurable diseases like pneumoconiosis, also called black lung. Prolonged exposures to diesel and methane without protective equipment cause nausea and headache.
It is also a fact that methane reacts with air and displaces oxygen resulting in suffocation and sudden death due to weakening of cardiovascular system. Due to oxygen deprivation, damage may occur to some or all organs including the nervous system and the brain causing headaches, dizziness, drowsiness, unconsciousness, nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath and early aging.
Heat, content, value
Coal business in this part of the world has flourished since coal was first discovered in the late 19th century. After partition, the local industry benefitted from it at a limited scale.
The coal extracted locally has high water and sulphur content and low heat value, which makes it inferior in quality to the coal imported primarily from South Africa and Indonesia. That is why industries like cement manufacturing and textiles mix it with imported coal to bring down fuel costs.
The major consumer of locally produced coal is the brick kiln industry which, according to estimates, consumes more than 90 per cent of the mined coal. The rates vary from Rs5,000 per tonne to Rs10,000 per tone, depending on the quality defined by the levels of moisture, sulphur and heat value. Coal extracted from coalmines in Balochistan fetches the highest price.
Syed Shahid Hussain, a mining engineer and supervisor at Wahstone and Lime Quarry (pvt) Limited, tells TNS coal extracted from Balochistan is of high quality because its’ seam can be as thick as 3 to 5 metres as compared to 0.2 to 0.6 metres in Punjab. “It is preferred by brick kilns and cement industry due to its heat value.”
He dispels the impression that coal is used for barbeque or cooking and explains the matter used for these is charcoal, made by heating wood in a controlled environment. “Burning coal releases hazardous chemicals, which makes it unfit for use in cooking,” he adds.
Charcoal, he says, is mostly pure carbon made by cooking wood in a low oxygen environment. This process can take long and burn off compounds such as water, methane, hydrogen, and tar. It is also quite light in weight and more brittle than coal.
Hussain says coalmines are fast closing down and workers getting unemployed due to closure of brick kilns in Punjab during the smog season.
Coal extraction by his company has come down as it has all over the country because the existing stocks are lying unsold. The company has obtained 2000 acres of land on 20-year lease from the Punjab government in Choa Saidan Shah, district Chakwal and employs workforce belonging primarily to Kashmir, Karak, Swat and Shangla.
Lately, there have been calls about improving the quality of locally produced coal and using it instead of the imported one, especially for power production. The fact that low-sulphur coal has been discovered near Quetta and in Thar has given strength to this argument.
Abdul Samad Raeesani, Chairman Lakhra Coal Management based in Sindh, has urged the government to promote local mining to save precious foreign exchange. He says installation of coal washing plants in coalmines and coalfields can provide coal equal in quality to the imported one. “If the government invests in this technology and facilitates the private sector, the country will be able to overcome power crisis, save foreign exchange, and produce cheap electricity.”
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An encouraging development is that US-based GE Power has introduced advanced boiler technology in Pakistan that makes even lignite coal usable for power production.
Coal discovered in Thar is lignite that contains extraordinarily high moisture and low ash content. This makes it difficult for lignite to burn properly. Reportedly, GE has entered into a $60 million equipment and services deal to mange 330 MW Thar Energy Limited (TEL) power plant for 12 years.