An “unprecedented” disaster

Lalmatia is part of the Rajmahal Group of Mines, a unit of Eastern Coalfields Limited (ECL), which is, in turn a subsidiary of government-owned Coal India Limited (CIL) — the world’s largest coal producer. The production contract for the mine was outsourced to a Gujarat-based private company Mahalaxmi Infracontract Pvt. Ltd (MIPL).

According to Sanjay Kumar Singh, General Manager of the Rajmahal Group of Mines, Lalmatia is one of the most productive of ECL’s mines: Its anticipated yield of 17 million tonnes in 2016-17 accounts for around 40 percent of the company’s total production.

A day after the disaster, the Ministry of Coal issued a statement calling the accident “unprecedented.”

“Apparently, it is a case of ground stability failure that needs to be studied in depth by mine specialist groups/agencies,” explained Arun Kumar Charanpahari, former general manager (mining) at CIL, in a written statement to Mongabay. “Based on the study report, mine designing needs to [be] redone. Mere blaming [of] individuals is not at all a solution — unless [the] root cause of ground failure is known, avoiding such ground failure in [the] future will not be possible.”

According to Tapan Prosad Basu, mining engineer and former chief general manager of Bharat Coking Coal Limited, another subsidiary company of CIL operating in the area, the key to safe open cast mining is overburden dump management and effective water drainage. “Getting land for overburden dumping may be a problem today, but creating such mammoth heaps of them at the mine entrance (as in the  case of Lalmatia) cannot be the solution,” he said. He suggested companies can avoid this risk by acquiring a small plot of land for dumping the initial batches of overburden and then gradually backfilling the mine pit as digging proceeds – a solution he said would be particularly suitable for mines like Lalmatia, where coal occurs in single seams.

Unstable ground

Although rescue efforts were launched within hours, they were suspended Jan. 3 and halted Jan. 4, after earth in the mine began shifting again.

“Our biggest challenge today is to remove this 14-15 million cubic meters of mammoth overburden heap that has covered up the Bhodai site of the Lalmatia mine,” SK Singh told Mongabay. An expert committee was constituted to draw up a plan to excavate the mine, he explained. This plan will be implemented only after approval by the company’s board and the Directorate General of Mines Safety (DGMS), India’s highest authority on mine safety. As a result, he explained, rescue and recovery operations cannot be restarted before April or May.

Coal widow Ayesha Khatoon with her daughter Arsha . Peeping from behind is the bereaved mother Katibun.  Photo courtesy of Tabrez.

Meanwhile, the kin of the workers killed in the accident are entitled to compensation of 1.8-2 million rupees (US$26,000 -29,000) per worker, Singh said.

A few miles from the Lalmatia mine stand barracks allotted to the mine’s contract laborers — rough sheds furnished with rows of camp beds. In the aftermath of the disaster, the area was eerily still. Built on leveled overburden dumps, these rows of asbestos-roofed tenements looked deserted. A handful of miners gathered in one of the rooms, rage, rancor and fear writ large on their faces.

“The accident could have been averted – cracks and fissures had begun to appear on the surface of the overburden dump, since the past few months. Our site supervisor Lalu Khan had repeatedly reported of such preliminary warning signs to the mine management, but it all went in vain. After a cosmetic patch-up of the cracks, work would resume as usual,” said the mine workers, who refused to be named out of fear of losing their jobs.

Even on the fateful day, a deep crack was visible on the surface of the overburden dump after blasting (a process carried out during coal extraction) during the afternoon, they said. “Many of us had noticed the overburden rocks slowly skidding off the wall since then. Sensing danger, Lalu had ordered stopping of work at about 4 p.m. (nearly three and half hours before the disaster). However, his words went unheeded once again and this time he had to pay for it with his life,” lamented his co-workers.

Randhir Singh, a veteran trade union leader, corroborated these statements. Singh is the regional ECL president of the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), affiliated to Congress, India’s oldest political party. “Writing was on the wall — it is certainly a manmade disaster,” he said.  The mine was inspected by a team of senior officials from the DGMS on August 11, 2016. This, Singh said, was followed by a two-day workshop on risk assessment in the area by DGMS on September 26-27, just three months before the fatal collapse.

General Manager SK Singh confirmed to Mongabay that mine safety officials visited the site before the disaster. “In neither of these occasions, the inspection team of DGMS had given us any written order to stop working in the mine, on grounds of safety lapses,” he said.

Yet, a few days after the incident, Director-General of DGMS, Rahul Guha, issued a statement saying Lalmatia was not fit for mining. In cases of threats to human life or other dangers, Section 22 of India’s Mines Act empowers inspectors to issue written orders to a mine’s management demanding the mine be shut down until problems are rectified. “Why was mining then allowed to continue there — in brazen disregard of safety conditions and human lives?” asked Randhir Singh.

Power politics

India is relying on coal to fulfill its ambitious target of “affordable, 24 x 7 power to all households by 2019.” Fossil fuel still comprises the major share of India’s energy mix, with government-owned CIL delivering nearly 81 percent of the country’s overall coal production.

The Ministry of Coal has accordingly upped CIL’s production target to 1 billion tonnes by 2019-20 from the 538.75 million tonnes recorded in 2015-16. “Large scale contract mining” has been listed as one of the major components for realizing this ambitious target.

“In the present scenario, over 55 percent of coal production and overburden dump removal in CIL are already being done through contractual mining or outsourcing,” said Mithilesh Kumar Singh, vice-president of the All India Coal Workers’ Federation, which is affiliated to the left-backed Centre of Indian Trade Unions.

“In this rush for coal to achieve targets, the plight of contractual coal workers engaged by the outsourced company is no less than bonded laborers. Incidents as Lalmatia are evidence enough to prove how safety lapses in mines are jeopardizing the lives of our miners,” he said.

In many cases, these workers do not even receive wages in line with guidelines developed for CIL. In April 2010, CIL constituted the High Powered Central Committee (HPC), a body including representatives of the company and of national trade unions, which was tasked with standardizing the salaries and benefits for contractual coal workers. In 2013, HPC came out with its recommendations, calling for a minimum salary for unskilled workers of 534 rupees ($7.90) for an eight-hour day, said Mithilesh, a member of the HPC.

However, according to Mithilesh, miners working for contractors often work longer days for less money. Trade union leaders claim such companies often enter into unofficial agreements with the workers to pay as little as $90-$100 per month to work twelve-hour days six days a week. These informal deals, they say, are obscured when companies submit official paperwork indicating everything is in place. To fight such practices, Mithilesh recommends requiring mining companies to install biometric time-keeping systems.  In the meantime, facing the pressures of unemployment and poverty, workers have little power to negotiate.

Local trade union leader Randhir Singh with survivor Hem Narayan Yadav, who suffered injuries to his head and lower body when the Lalmatia mine’s overburden dump collapsed.  Photo courtesy of Randhir Singh.

In the race for production and profits, the companies awarded the original outsourcing contracts often sublet their coal patches to local contractors who deliver output on smaller profit margins, said Randhir Singh. This aggravates the condition of workers on the ground. “Ironically, the Coal Mines (Nationalization) Act of 1973 took over from the private sector mines, to ensure better safety standards and welfare of coal workers — but in the given turn of events, we are reverting back to the same era,” he said.

Former CIL general manager Arun Kumar Charanpahari said, “In the changing scenario of coal production, achieved majorly through outsourcing, it is high time that the Mines’ Act and Coal Mines’ Regulation, are reviewed/ amended — whereby the role of outsourced company is made more specific and well defined.”

“The present situation is indeed confusing,” Charanpahari added. “While coal production happens to be in the hands of the outsourced agent, the responsibility of maintaining safety standards lies with the coal company. This, in most cases, relegates the predominant issue of mine safety to no man’s land.”

Coal miner Parvez Alam, whose body has still not been recovered. Photo courtesy of Tabrez.

DGMS, together with the coal company, should frame clear guidelines on safety practices, assigning specific roles to the respective authorities in this regard; the prime responsibility for safe mining must be given to the outsourced company, if incidents like Lalmatia are to be prevented, Charanpahari said.

“The need of the hour is to have a safety management plan for every mine, and ensure its ground implementation,” said the Director General DGMS, Rahul Guha. This will help in pre-identification of the dangers that the mines face, thereby averting mishaps in the long run. Guidelines in this regard had been issued to the coal sector as early as 2001-02 — the latest being given on April 2016, he said. “But unfortunately, these plans simply exist in pen and paper — the drive for their implementation has to come from the top.”

This lack of drive translates into human suffering in places like Lalmatia. “The poor miners from our families are having to pay with their lives for lapses in implementation of mines’ safety instructions,” said Tabrez, brother of deceased Lalmatia miner Parvez Alam. “Next time you switch on the light in your room, spare a thought for the hewers of coal whose tireless work in such difficult conditions set aglow millions of electric bulbs in the country. This would at least be a small tribute to our kin, who we lost in the mine tragedy,” he said.

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Article published by Isabel Esterman
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