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Buried under Neglect

India’s latest mining accident yet again points to neglect of basic safety principles.

On the night of 29 December 2016 as the nation’s attention was focused on the approaching deadline to deposit invalid bank notes, 23 workers trapped under debris at the Lalmatia open-cast coal mine in Jharkhand’s Godda district, were struggling for their lives. Eighteen bodies were pulled out the next day and rescue operations were continuing at the time of writing. What is galling is that the director general of mines safety announced that it was not a “complex technical” factor that was responsible but neglect of basic safety principles. Though the work was part of the Rajmahal Opencast Project of Eastern Coalfields which is a subsidiary of the state-owned Coal India Limited (CIL), it had been outsourced to the private Mahalaxmi Company.

This accident, which is by no means unusual in an industry that is considered along with shipbuilding to be the most hazardous, draws attention to a host of serious issues related to mining in India. These include: abysmal safety conditions for workers, outsourcing by public sector companies of work contracts to private companies that are lax in following rules and regulations, environmental degradation, violation of human rights of local residents who are predominantly tribal, hiring of contract labourers from outside the area to circumvent protests by locals, outright corruption in sanctioning projects that exploit the minerals, “illegal” mining that employs a large number of the marginalised, and employment of child labour. A number of reports and documentaries have shown how the tribal populations of these mineral-rich areas and states live in utter poverty, many of them displaced and others in continual fear of displacement even as huge projects bring massive profits to private companies.

Ironically, the Coal Mines (Nationalisation) Act of 1973 took over private sector mines which were accused of neglecting safety procedures. Yet, not only has safety not been a priority in the state-owned mines but they seem to have turned a full circle with the outsourcing of jobs to private contractors! According to media reports quoting official data, the recent 18 deaths add to the 65 due to mining fatalities in coal and non-coal mines in 2016. These only increase the number of such tragedies over the long history of mining in the country. Many fatalities and serious accidents also occur during transportation and use of explosives. The Lalmatia tragedy also underscores the fact that the knowledge of the workers gained by long experience is not given the importance it deserves. The earth that is scooped out when large pits are dug to get to the coal seam is collected on three sides of the “working face” of the mine. It was this earth that caved in and buried the workers, including the excavating machines. They had complained about cracks in the slope formed by the excavated earth but were told to just continue doing their jobs.

CIL and the state government have announced compensations as well as an inquiry. The latter will hardly elicit information that is novel and its report will most probably be relegated to the shelves. It is the compensation part that workers and activists have for long complained about. They say that the process of actually getting the amount whether for an injury or death (given to the kin) on the job is long drawn-out. Since many of these workers are on contract and not eligible for welfare benefits, the compensatory amount is all that they or their families can fall back on.

The Human Rights Watch report “Out of Control: Mining, Regulatory Failure and Human Rights in India,” published in 2012 looks at iron ore mining in Goa and Karnataka to show “how even mines operating with the approval of government regulators are able to violate the law with complete impunity.” It adds that a mix of bad policies, weak institutions and corruption, government oversight and ineffectual regulation of the country’s mining industry has resulted in “chaos.” The report details the community harm that iron ore mining activities wreck on local farmers
destroying their crops through the environmental degradation and threatening the community with economic and health ruin.

There are reports that CIL’s poor production performance recently will worsen with the accident in the open cast mine. This does not augur well for introduction of safety measures or the demand that work in the state-owned mines should not be handed over to private parties. However, there is no doubt that the mining sector in India, whether privately operated or state-owned, needs to devise a multi-pronged strategy that encompasses occupational safety along with protection of the rights of local residents and the environment. On the face of it, the strategy called for seems like a tall order but not fulfilling it would mean ruin beyond repair on many fronts.

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