MAC: Mines and Communities

Mines of death

Published by MAC on 2006-09-16

Mines of death

12th Spetember 2006

The safety record of coal mining has improved over time, but mine disasters have been happening with disconcerting regularity.

There is no doubt that India's safety record in coal mining has improved over time, particularly since the takeover of the sector in 1973. Even so, mine disasters have been happening with disconcerting regularity, mostly in underground mines. While disasters due to explosions have been controlled in the last two decades, the scourge of inundation has increased alarmingly in the recent past. This is the backdrop against which the recent disaster at the Bhatdih mine (near Dhanbad) of Bharat Coking Coal Limited - which claimed some 50 lives - has to be seen. The tragedy was sparked by an explosion whose cause is yet to be ascertained.

An inquiry committee has been set up which will, in due course, report on the causes of the tragedy and affix responsibility. This will take its own time and, needless to say, it is to be expected that the report will be objective in its findings and comprehensive in its conclusions. In this context, it is of interest to note that some officials have already been quoted as saying that the Bhatdih mine authorities did not pay enough attention to the safety standards which, if true, needs to be given the highest importance not merely by Coal India but also by the Coal Ministry, especially as the coal mining sector is to soon see a return of private sector operators. Even though prevailing safety standards have improved significantly the world over the past three decades, it should be kept in mind that one of the reasons for the nationalisation of coal mining was the poor safety record of privately-run mines. As studies on mine safety have indicated, fundamentally it is a question of effective management practices, there being much room for improvement within Coal India in this aspect.

Apart from a sense of lethargy that has crept in at the senior management level, other aspects of mining safety that need a closer look are proper supervision of contract labour and quality-control of basic inputs such as explosives, and self-rescuers (a device that permits miners to breathe in an atmosphere thick with carbon-monoxide caused by fire). To take an example, a huge consignment of self-rescuers 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. Since the Bhatdih disaster was caused by an explosion and a large number of miners reportedly died because of the inhalation of carbon-monoxide, the inquiry would do well to find out it whether the ill-fated miners were equipped with self-rescuers in the first place and whether the equipment functioned properly.

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