The beginning of 2021 has increasingly seen accidents and deaths in coalmines and collieries in Pakistan. Only last month, two coalmines collapsed in Balochistan, home to large deposits of coal, causing many coalminers’ deaths.
In the tragic accident on March 15, seven coalminers burnt to death in a huge fire triggered by methane gas blast inside a coalmine in Harnai District, while digging about 1,500 feet deep inside the mine, and two rescuers also lost their lives. Earlier, on March 12, six workers had died in the Marwar Coalfields in Machh area following an explosion caused by the toxic methane gas. The explosion took place around 1,000 feet deep inside the mine when the mineworkers were busy digging the coal.
In February, four mineworkers died when part of the coalmine collapsed in Duki District of Balochistan. On December 25, 2020, six coalminers were trapped inside another mine in the same district. On the same day, another three miners had become unconscious from inhaling toxic methane gas at a coalmine in Kachhi District. According to the media reports, there were as many as 72 accidents in coalmines in Balochistan during 2020, claiming lives of at least 102 coalmine workers and causing serious injuries to many others.
There are more than 2,800 small-scale coalmines, owned by the state-run Pakistan Mineral Development Corporation and leased out to the individuals and private companies, in seven districts of Balochistan. These coalmines, or collieries, are located in Degari-Sor-Range (Quetta District), Sharigh-Khost-Harnai (Sibi District) and Degari Colleries (Mastung District). These coalmines employ some 20,000 mineworkers.
In addition, there are about 5,000 coalmines in the region that are unregistered, operating in informal sector, and employing another 50,000 mineworkers or so. Coal is mined using primitive surface (open cast) and underground (deep) mining methods, such as tunnelling, digging, and manual extraction, under poor and unsafe working conditions. The miners are hired through labour contracts.
Coalmining is considered a hazardous industry and dangerous occupation the world over. In Pakistan, coalmining has historically been oppressed with hazards, such as suffocation, gas poisoning, gas explosion, fires and other incidents. Thousands of coalmine workers, mostly bonded labour, work in perilous conditions, dealing with hazardous materials, coal dust and toxic gases like methane and carbon monoxide, in unsafe working conditions. Generally, the mineworkers are not even provided with safety gears, personal protective equipment (PPE) such as protective clothing, helmet, goggles etc.
Rescuing equipment, firefighting apparatus, equipment for detection of methane gas, and proper ventilation in the mines are lacking. There exist no hospitals or dispensaries or ambulances in spite of common occupational accidents and diseases. There is no effective mechanism to monitor and regulate the mining operations, in spite of mining inspectors and other staff deployed by the government agencies, and implementation of regulations framed under the Balochistan Mines Act 1923, which requires mine operators to provide such facilities.
The workers are engaged on jobs through labour contract system and are paid meagre wages, sometimes not even the minimum wages set by the government. There is no security of jobs. No benefits of any kind are available to workers, such as admissibility of overtime though they work for long hours, and/or any weekly, monthly or annual holidays, pension or gratuity, medical facility or healthcare, insurance or compensation in case of accidents. They are not registered with the institutions of social security, and practically no legal protection is available to them.
National Commission for Human Rights-Pakistan (NCHR) had prepared, in January 2019, a report titled “Death in Mines (A Report on Coal Mines in Balochistan)”, highlighting the ineffectiveness of the concerned departments primarily due to political pressures, and underscoring the need to curb or minimise the accidents on priority. A set of recommendations were made to the provincial government such as to cancel licenses of mine owners where fatal accidents occurred, to ensure that compensation was paid on deaths, and to strictly impose penalties for not ensuring health and safety standards. The report also recommended, among others, that working conditions in the coalmines be improved, labour contract system be abolished, and registration of mineworkers be made mandatory. Sadly, the report remains in cold storage, and its recommendations were never considered for implementation.
The year 2018 was one of the deadliest years for the coalminers as 104 miners had reportedly died, though the actual number of deaths could be higher. Taking cognizance of the issue, the Supreme Court of Pakistan had also asked, on September 15, 2018, the governments of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to submit a report on deaths of coalminers and status of implementation of laws regulating mine-safety. Alas, there seems to be no response from the provincial governments.
Accidents and explosions in coalmines located in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have also killed numerous mineworkers in recent years. There are about 140 registered and 500 non-registered or illegal small-scale coalmines operating in private sector mainly in the districts of Dara Adamkhel, Hangu and Orakzai. On October 15, 2020, three miners were killed in Dara Adamkhel due to gas explosion in the mine, while nine miners had died, and another three were injured, in a similar accident in the area when the roof of the mine collapsed on September 13, 2018. The mineworkers were digging coal at about 300 feet inside the mine. Three miners were killed in a coalmine in Tirah, Khyber District in July 2020.
On April 10, 2019 four miners lost their lives working in a coalmine in Kala Khel (Khyber District) as they were exposed to large levels of carbon monoxide. Major disaster was on December 24, 2012 when seven miners were killed and another fifty seriously injured in a coalmine in Hangu (Kohat) due to accumulation of poisonous gas and lack of ventilation. It is estimated that 297 mineworkers died in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa during the seven-year period 2014-2020.
Comparatively, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government has taken quick measures to check the accidents in coalmines. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Minerals Sector Governance Act 2017 is in place. The registration of mineworkers has been initiated since December 2020. Compensation package of Rs5 million on the death of coalminer has been announced. Sadly, the Balochistan government still remains insensitive to the issue. It is imperative for the Balochistan government to take similar actions, and to implement mining rules and regulations forthwith. Mining is a provincial subject, nonetheless, the federal government should ensure effective enforcement of National Labour Laws in the provinces.
In this context, the government of Pakistan should also ratify international laws and regulations on mining industry, in particular the ILO (International Labour Organisation) “Convention on Safety and Health in Mines, C-176”, which is key to the challenges of occupational safety and health in the mining industry. The Convention adopted in June 1995 has been ratified by and is in force in 34 countries. Pakistan Labour Federation and mining labour and trade unions have been urging the government for many years to ratify and implement the Convention, but without success. Also, the ILO Codes of Practice for (i) Occupational Safety and Health in Coal Mines (1986), and (ii) Safety and Health in Underground Coalmines (2006) are relevant and need to be followed in Pakistan, without further delay.
The writer is retired chairman, State Engineering Corporation