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Of Stygian Depths

Thirty-seven miners lose their life in Bagdihi, a Dhanbad colliery, to official callousness

Of Stygian Depths
Of Stygian Depths
A pall of gloom hangs heavy over the mining community in Dhanbad. Of the 38 miners who were trapped inside the Bagdihi coal mine since February 2, only Salim Ansari has been found alive though unconscious on the seventh day. Some dead bodies have also been fished out. The others, still missing, are all believed to be dead. This tragedy, in a mine owned by psu Bharat Coking Coal Ltd (bccl), brings back memories of the 1975 Chasnala disaster which had claimed 390 lives. Dhanbad still has 2,04,650 million tonnes of coal—a third of the national reserve. But thanks to poor safety standards and lethargy on the part of successive governments (in Bihar and now in Jharkhand) to ensure that these standards are adhered to, the collieries in this part of the country have become veritable death traps.

Rough estimates indicate that in the past decades more than 1,000 miners have perished in disasters inside the coal mines of Dhanbad—inundation alone has taken a toll of more than 670 miners. Bagdihi was the tenth major mine mishap since the 1955 Amlabad disaster in which 52 miners were killed. Compensation to the bereaved families is the only ritual that happens faithfully after every such accident. Once the focus is off the tragedy, mining continues as before, below the danger level, in about 612 mines in this area of which 112 are owned by the bccl.

Says A.K. Roy, Marxist Coordination Committee leader and a trade union veteran: "To meet the production target, the management forces the miners to overlook the safety rules and regulations. This results in tragedies like Chasnala and Bagdihi." Roy, a former MP and president of the Bihar Colliery Kamgar Union (bcku), has spent his whole life fighting for the miners' cause. He alleges: "All mine mishaps are avoidable. It is only because of the arbitrariness and callousness with which the bccl officials go about their job that tragedies happen at regular intervals in collieries in and around Dhanbad."

The Bagdihi mine mishap is, once again, a tragic reiteration of the fact that the directorate general of mines safety (dgms), a labour ministry affiliate, is callous in its functioning. The Mines Act, 1952, holds the dgms directly accountable for the safety of mines. The Justice S.K. Mookerjee Commission, on the Gaslitand mine disaster (September 26-27, 1995), had spelt out the dgms' role and responsibility clearly in the recommendations which constituted its report:

  • The dgms should be suitably strengthened and made effective so as to fulfil its role and function. The body has from all appearances been left to go to seed.

  • Before the onset of monsoon, mines situated by a river or any other water source should be inspected by the dgms along with the mine management. The dgms may issue instructions to beef up safety or ban mining in hazard-prone collieries.

  • The feasibility of reclamation of disused mines near rivers and major sources of water, particularly those connected to the water bodies through subsidence cracks or fissures, has to be gauged carefully.

  • Detailed precautionary measures against the danger of inundation should be laid down while working beneath or in the vicinity of rivers and major surface water bodies. This may include framing and implementation of standing orders for safe withdrawal of persons, provision of float alarms as means of warning in case of a rise in water level in the river and an effective communication system which can function even independent of electricity and in adverse conditions.

  • Inter-mine barrier is an effective way to prevent transference of danger from one mine to another. In mines where the barrier has become ineffective due to interconnections or otherwise, the same may be restored artificially by constructing suitable dams, explosion-proof stoppers and other methods.

  • All disused pits, potholes and surface subsidence existing in the vicinity of the river or surface water body, and all those places which are threatened by inundation should be sealed by reinforced concrete seals or other suitable means.

    But unfortunately none of the suggested guidelines have been followed either by the bccl management or the dgms. Alleges S.K. Bakshi, the Jharkhand state president of citu: "Leave alone the Mookerjee commission report being followed, even the officers found guilty, and against whom criminal cases were registered, have not only been allowed to go free but have also got promotions." He believes that even if some of the measures recommended by the commission had been followed, the Bagdihi disaster could have been averted.

    Even a casual inspection of the Dhanbad collieries reveals the existence of serious safety lapses. In contravention of the Mines Safety Rule and Regulations, 1952, most of the abandoned mines are not sealed or filled with sand. This is a must to prevent their collapse. Secondly, against the requirement of 2,61,194 SRs (self-rescuers or breathing masks), there are only 73,751 such masks in the coalfields of Dhanbad. Besides, in case of the Lodna area, where 1,200 miners work, there are only 400 torch caps. Mining shoes which should be replaced every six months are replaced every two years. And most importantly, the underground telephone system is largely non-functional. Failure of the communications system compounded the Bagdihi disaster.

    That safety is low on priority can be gauged from the fact that a week before the tragedy the bccl management, together with the dgms, had held a "safety week" at the ill-fated mine in which the miners had pointed out that there was seepage of water inside the mine through the barrier of the nearby Jayarampur colliery.

    Even on the day of the tragedy, the miners had protested against going down inside the mine unless the required safety measures were taken. To prove that their fears were unfounded, two officers—mining officer A.K. Upadhayay and assistant mining officer P.R. Singh—went inside with the miners and were also caught in the death trap. Even the barrier wall, which Justice Mookerjee had specifically instructed should have run along 120 metres, had been reduced to just 10-20 feet. The barrier was cut to increase production, ignoring the danger that lurked ahead. It had become so weak that toxic water, stored in Jayarampur colliery since 1962, gushed in to drown all those inside.

    Even when it came to rescue efforts, the laxity of officials was pretty evident. A navy spokesman, while withdrawing the rescue party of divers, said the absence of proper blueprints of the bccl mines prompted the divers to repeatedly change their search areas to cover different tunnels. Says he: "The flooded portion of the Bagdihi mine is a labyrinth of tunnels and the plans given to the divers didn't match the actual position of the tunnels."

    R.L. Arora, the top man in the dgms, has the usual feeble explanation to offer: "Only after the investigation and inquiry will I be able to comment on this." But privately, many bccl and dgms officials admit the Bagdihi mishap happened because of a total lack of concern for safety. Though an fir has been filed against bccl general manager B.S. Srivastava and nine others, and Jharkhand CM Babulal Marandi has instituted a judicial probe, no one is impressed. The miners say they have no faith in the inquiry commission because such effort is doomed to go the Mookerjee commission way. Unsafe mining, they fear, will continue and the guilty will thrive.
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