Print edition : February 17, 2001

There have been 800 deaths in the country over the past two decades in mine accidents similar to the latest one in Dhanbad district, but in the rush to meet ever-higher production targets, mine safety measures receive inadequate attention.

IN yet another coalmine disaster in Dhanbad district, in the newly created Jharkhand State, at least 31 mine personnel have lost their lives in a pit that was accidentally inundated on February 2. After six days of rescue operations, one miner, Salim Ans ari, was rescued by a team of Bharat Coking Coal Limited at the Bagdiggi colliery of BCCL. Three days after the accident, one body had floated out of the pit, which was filled with water up to the brim. On February 8, three more bodies were pulled out. A mong the victims are the mine manager, A.K. Upadhyaya, and assistant manager P.A. Singh.

Miners preparing to go down the shaft to take part in rescue operations.-PARTH SANYAL

Water from the nearby upper seam tank had gushed into Mine No.8 following a routine dynamite blast that broke the barrier mine wall. A BCCL source said: "The land over the mine caved in following the dynamite blast. The 240-metre deep mine's underground barrier collapsed under the impact of the gushing water. Of the 51 people inside, 19 managed to escape."

Unofficial sources, however, said that the number of miners trapped was more than what was being stated officially. They said that daily-wage labourers were also working in the mine when water entered it. "A large number of daily-wage labourers were sent in by the colliery contractor on February 2," said Balram Pandey, brother-in-law of Upadhyaya. The colliery agent, P.R. Sengupta, was missing; so were some of the registers and documents. The missing papers included the lamp allotment register and the d aily wages rolls.

Mine accidents have been a frequent phenomenon in the Dhanbad coal belt. Seventy-four miners were killed in Gaslitand on September 26, 1995, and 55 were killed in the New Kenda Colliery in 1994 ('Murder at New Kenda', Frontline, February 25, 1994) . Altogether 375 workers were killed in the Chasnala coalmine disaster in December 1975.

Since dynamite is used for coal-mining operations, sometimes the explosion leaves a big crack, and water from a nearby tank or river floods the mine. Safety norms are often flouted by the authorities themselves. Both in the Chasnala and Gaslitand episode s, water from a nearby reservoir and a rain-fed river rushed into the mines, breaking the barrier walls. Workers were trapped in the flooded mines.

Survivor Salim Ansari in hospital.-PARTH SANYAL

The Bihar Colliery Kamgar Union (BCKU) president A.K. Roy, who visited Bagdiggi after the disaster, told Frontline that instead of learning the lessons from the Chasnala and Gaslitand tragedies, the mine managements had been reducing the gap betwe en underground barriers. According to him, this is what caused the Bagdiggi accident. BCKU general secretary S.K. Baksi said that though the accident in Bagdiggi occurred around 1 p.m., the management started pumping out water only in the evening.

The BCCL authorities admitted that there were difficulties in deploying pumps. At least five million gallons of water had accumulated in the seventh seam where the accident had occurred. In the initial stage of the rescue operation, it was thought that t he trapped miners might have sought safety in the right side of the flooded seam which is at a higher level. Therefore a hole was made to provide ventilation to those inside. Pumps were brought from other mines to de-water the pit.

Initial hopes of finding survivors had faded when the Director-General of Mines Safety (DGMS), R.L. Arora, said that Navy divers who had gone into the pit had failed to find anyone - dead or alive. In the first such rescue effort in the country, two grou ps of Navy divers, from Mumbai and Visakhapatnam, were at work here.

Relatives of the miners waiting outside the mine.-PARTH SANYAL

A Coal India Limited (CIL) official said that a first group of five divers flown in from Mumbai entered the flooded pit through the adjacent Jairampur colliery Pit No. 5 around 2 p.m. on February 4. According to this official, after staying under water f or more than two hours, they surfaced for 10 minutes to say that they had heard some miners calling: "Hum sab thik hain (we are okay)".

The DGMS, however, later said: " When the diving team finally emerged, none of the miners had been traced... I have personally spoken to the divers. The report that contact was made was incorrect." Arora said that the divers had searched the entire pit. "The last air pocket has been searched. It is unlikely that there are any more survivors," said A.K. Rudra, Deputy Director-General (central zone) of Mines Safety.

Yet, on February 8, miner Salim Ansari was found lying unconscious in an "air pocket" some 250 metres below the surface level, by teams of rescue personnel sent in by the BCCL after the departure of the divers and after the water level receded. The 50-ye ar-old miner happened to be at work in the air pocket when water gushed into the pit and he stayed put there. He was brought out at 7.30 a.m. in a stable condition. Ansari said: "Collapsing of roofs is a usual occurrence in a mine, but this is terrible. I was lying on an incline somewhere on seam seven for seven days with no food, drinking only water. By Allah's grace I found a broken tin container. I began beating it, hoping against hope that I would manage to draw the attention of people engaged in re scue work."

Detailing what had happened on February 2, Arora said that a routine dynamite blast had destroyed an underground barrier between the Bagdiggi and Jairampur collieries and water had gushed in. He said that in all 16 million gallons of water swept into the Bagdiggi mine. Of this, 10 million gallons submerged the mine shaft and the rest flowed out.

JHARKHAND Chief Minister Babulal Marandi, who visited Bagdiggi shortly after the accident, had to face a hostile crowd. Relatives of the trapped miners demanded action against the BCCL authorities who, they alleged, had allowed the extraction of coal in a manner that violated mine safety rules. Holding the BCCL responsible for the disaster, Marandi announced an inquiry into the accident and vowed not to spare any guilty official. The Chief Minister also expressed his displeasure over the pace of the res cue operations. He said: "There has been a series of mine accidents in the Jharkhand region. This is only because safety guidelines are not adhered to by the CIL subsidiaries in the State. Most of the mines are unsafe and nothing is being done to improve the conditions."

The Union Minister of State for Rural Development and former Coal Minister, Rita Verma, who visited Bagdiggi, said that BCCL and Eastern Coalfields Limited (ECL) were carrying out mining operations in violation of the Coalmines Regulation Act. She said t hat in their enthusiasm to exceed production targets, the BCCL and ECL managements had made the mines accident-prone. The underground maps detailing the conditions in the mines had not been updated, she said, although as the Coal Minister she had asked C IL to do so. The Bagdiggi accident could have been averted had the two entities prepared a new map, she added.

Neither CIL nor the Ministry of Coal has identified the accident-prone mines in the Jharia coalfields in Dhanbad. The coalfields, which have 21 seams, are spread over 500 sq km, of which 32 sq km are areas prone to mine fires. A senior official of the Mi nistry of Coal told Frontline that no study to identify the accident-prone mines had been carried out, though over 800 people had lost their lives in various mine accidents in the last two decades following inundation. The DGMS had recommended the closure of over a hundred unsafe mines of CIL in the Jharia coalfields. But informed sources say that although managements often move to take safety-oriented steps, the pressure to meet ever-higher production targets leave them with little choice in the matter. Meanwhile, the miners, working in extremely difficult conditions owing to livelihood pressures, pay the price with their lives.

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