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Mining tragedy

Editorial Board
Monday, Dec 05, 2022

The job of a coal miner is a dangerous one even in the best of conditions. Working hundreds of feet underground in enclosed, unstable mines will always be risky, to say nothing of the accumulated health hazards of breathing in dust and chemical particles. It is the job of the government to minimize these risks through a strong regulatory system that prioritizes regular checks and enforces strict rules on safety conditions. Time and again, however, the state has come up short. In the latest such incident, last week, at least nine miners lost their lives and four others sustained injuries when a gas explosion occurred in the Orakzai district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The explosion took place inside a coal mine and apparently there was no mechanism in place to rescue the trapped miners in a timely manner. The government usually writes off such incidents as unavoidable tragedies but the sheer number of deaths in coal mines shows that safety regulations are not being followed and the government is not taking action against those responsible. Clearly there is a problem here and it is one that the government has not addressed.

In most mines across Pakistan there is hardly any proper provision for ventilation resulting in accumulation of gas in mines. In the latest incident, methane gas had accumulated in large volumes in various cavities of the mine and there was no outlet to release the gas. The world over latest technologies are available for such ventilation and mining standards call for installation of modern methods so that gas accumulation can be prevented from exploding. When such explosions occur the trapped miners end up buried under the debris or find themselves injured and unable to move. In such situations there is a need for an effective relief and rescue operation that can save the injured and retrieve the bodies quickly. Normally these mines are located hundreds of kilometers away from big hospitals in major cities. After every such incident, teams rush to the spot but fail to reach in time due to various factors including poor quality of roads and long distances. Then there is also a lack of medical facilities around or nearby most mines in the country.

Miners work in poor conditions and every now and then major and minor incidents take place but only some major ones get reported. Every year there are dozens of deaths reported while many more go unreported. Mine collapse incidents are increasingly becoming common across the country. Earlier this year in April 2022, at least three miners were killed in a coal mine collapse in the same district. There are certainly laws in place to reduce the risk of accidents. Yet these laws are ignored both by ravenous mine owners who maximize their profits on the backs of the working poor and a state that has never attached any importance to workers’ rights. As in almost every other private industry, labour unions in the mining sector have been deliberately weakened over the years. Most miners, especially in Sindh and Balochistan, are migrant workers from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa who earn low wages and receive few benefits. Just making ends meet is difficult enough making it even more difficult for them to demand greater workplace safety.

For these tragedies and lax management of mines, there is no one person or entity responsible. From lease contractors and mine owners to district health authorities and provincial mine control – all contribute to this mismanagement resulting in frequent losses of lives. In this incident, even the lease contractor was also among the dead. In many cases, there is no one contractor involved. The mining standards and protocols in Pakistan are perhaps one of the worst in the world. It should not take massive loss of precious life for us to wake up to the need for better safety procedures. The state has to empower unions so that they can press not just for improved safety in mines but to get miners the benefits they deserve for toiling in a profession where respiratory illnesses are common and danger is lurking in every corner.