Doling Out Death to Mine Workers

The rescue of the small child Prince from a pit by the Army was a human drama in which TV cameras helped the entire nation to participate. The triumph of life over death, the ingenuity of those who devised ways to rescue the child at all costs, was hailed – and rightly so – as a triumph of the human will. Indeed, all those who saw the innocent trapped in a death-pit in the bowels of the earth, willed him to escape unscathed.

Why, then, is the same human spirit and the will to prevent terrible and needless deaths, routinely denied to coal mine workers in India ? Why are they condemned to risk the horror of being buried in a fiery pit to be roasted alive – time and time again? Why are the families of such workers condemned to wonder, daily, if their loved ones will return from the job; condemned to experience the hopeless hope that those trapped below will have a miraculous escape? Surely it is because our Governments do not really consider the lives of such workers precious enough to merit the best possible prevention and rescue measures.

Not long ago, 10 mine workers from Jharkhand and 30 from Bengal were left to die trapped in a mine in Purulia – with no attempt at rescue – and the chilling official excuse was that they did not merit rescue since they were indulging in “illegal mining”. Well, those at Bhatdih were ‘legal' mine loaders – and yet, how much were their lives worth?

On September 6, 54 workers at the Bharat Coking Coal Limited's (BCCL) Bhatdih mines in Nagda colliery in Dhanbad district of Jharkhand, died following an explosion caused by methane gas inside the 440-mt-deep mine. This is being called an ‘accident'; but the sheer callous neglect of safety regulations shows it to be a case of criminal murder by the authorities.

CPI(ML) leaders rushed to the site as soon the tragedy occurred. Soon after, on September 9, an investigation team led by the CPI(ML) General Secretary Comrade Dipankar visited the site of the accident. Other members of the delegation were PB member Akhilendra Pratap Singh, CCMs Brij Bihari Pandey and K D Yadav, Sukhdev Prasad, Upendra Singh and Bagodar MLA Vinod Singh.

Meeting the team, workers said that last year, a report of the Director General of Mines Safety (DGMS) had ordered closing of the mine, deeming it as a ‘third-degree mine' – one of the most poisonous, ‘gassy' mines of BCCL. An order issued had specified that sandbags and water-sprinklers be used in order to neutralise the gas and confine it to a sealed-off area; further, levels of methane be tested daily to check methane levels – and only when safety was guaranteed should the mine be reopened. However, the colliery management managed to get a license to run the mine, on the basis of some assurances regarding safety regulations. It is well known that BCCL is running at a loss, and the ‘approved' measures in the era of new economic policies to make BCCL turnaround are to compromise and cut costs on workers' safety. The methanometer to measure the levels of methane in the mine had in fact been out of order for over a year, but it was never set right. And the supervisory institutions and authorities – the DGMS, the mining sardar (supervisor), and others, simply turned a blind eye to the violations of safety norms and a deaf ear to the repeated pleas of the workers. It is an open secret that the DGMS is routinely bought out by the coal mafia and coal companies – which see workers as machines which extract coal, rather than as living beings.

The matter of purchase of safety equipment is a lucrative site of corruption. To take an example, a huge consignment of self-rescuers (a device that permits miners to breathe in an atmosphere thick with carbon-monoxide caused by fire) bought by Coal India in 1998 worth more than a million dollars was found to be substandard by the Directorate-General of Mines Safety and ordered to be replaced. How come the mine loaders at Bhatdih never had such self-rescuers, and died of inhaling carbon monoxide?

Workers' representatives point out that the laxity towards safety is a direct fallout of the policy of privatisation – there is a bid to privatise 197 coal blocks, and 41 collieries are being transferred to private hands. The BCCL CMD Partho Bhatacharya is soon to take over as Coal India Chairman. He is obviously being rewarded for promoting outsourcing and privatisation. He has declared that since mechanisation of underground mines is difficult, they should be shut down to avoid accidents. In the wake of the Bhatdih incident, he has washed his hands off responsibility and instead shifted blame onto the workers' shoulders by claiming that underground mining is being continued just to accommodate surplus coal workers, and shifting to open cast mining can yield profits for BCCL. So workers are being asked to choose between death by starvation and unemployment, and death by accidents!

The CPI(ML) team visited the workers' settlement at Dhavada – to find workers living in primitive, unsanitary rooms which resemble dark, dank caves surrounded by stinking drains. For these wretched shanties, they have to pay a bribe of Rs 100 per room.

On 15 September, for the first time in history, a demonstration was held at the DGMS office – organised by the CMWU and CPI(ML). The protestors demanded resignation of the Coal Minister, DGMS and BCCL management for their criminal collusion in jeopardising workers' lives. On 7 September, CPI(ML) will organise a black badge protest day at all collieries in the coal-belt.

- Sukhdev Prasad