Death in a mine

Print edition : February 17, 2017

Rescue work under way at the Rajmahal opencast mine, previously known as the Lalmatiya colliery. Photo: PTI

Bodies of miners near the site. Many more were trapped under the debris. Photo: AFP

The fissure that was noticed and reported by miners. Photo: T.K. Rajalakshmi

Trucks and other vehicles were damaged in the overburden collapse. Photo: PTI

A team of the National Disaster Response Force at the mine site. Photo: PTI

The mining disaster in the Rajmahal opencast mine in Jharkhand raises questions about the safety standards adopted by coalfields and adherence to mining laws.

IN the second week of February, Jharkhand will host a global investors summit, preparations for which began last year in the form of a road show held in August. Several important personalities, including former Indian cricket captain M.S. Dhoni, advertise it regularly. However, even as the State government was immersed in showcasing its rich mineral resources for future investment, 23 young miners were killed in the worst mining disaster in an opencast mine in the State.

On the evening of December 29, it was work as usual for the largely migrant worker contingent employed by a contractor at the Bhorai site of the Rajmahal opencast mines expansion project in Goda district of Jharkhand. The miners, mostly in their twenties and thirties, were asphyxiated after they got trapped underneath following the sliding of the dump and overburden. The management, the principal employer Eastern Coalfields Limited (ECL), and the operating contractor, considered an old hand in the business, had ignored warnings from individuals and workers that cracks had developed in the dump around the mine and that it was dangerous to work.

Thirty-one workers were at the mine site at the time of the mishap. Photographs showing faces of miners frozen in a terrified rictus are clear proof that the young miners had no clue of the disaster that was going to hit them. According to a statement issued by ECL: “ prima facie, it is observed that the incident is unprecedented, since an area of 300 metres by 110 m solid floor of the overburden dump area has slid down by about 35 m involving around 9.5 million cubic metres of earth material. This could be due to the failure of the bench edge along the hidden fault line/slip.” The initial death toll was seven; it later went up to 18. An inquiry was ordered by the Directorate General of Mines Safety (DGMS), and a high-level committee of experts was constituted by Coal India Limited (CIL). The committee’s reports have not yet appeared, but Frontline has access to a fact-finding report prepared by the All India Coal Workers’ Federation (AICWF).

The overburden, in classic geological terms, refers to large volumes of material, including soil and rock, that is removed to gain access to deposits. It is usually piled on the surface at mine sites so that it does not impede the further expansion of the mining operation.

The Rajmahal opencast project is regarded as a prestigious mine of ECL and the main source of coal supply to NTPC, Farakka. At the Bhorai site, where mining was under way, the overburden dump was around 150 m high without a “bench” and it encircled the work below in a U-shape. According to the AICWF fact-finding committee, which visited the accident site and met miners, local people and members of the management, the disaster was waiting to happen. The committee included two AICWF members, who were also members on the CIL Safety Board and the Standing Committee on Safety in Coal Mines. One of the prime reasons for such disasters, they said, was the rampant outsourcing of coal extraction.

Warnings ignored

The contract was awarded in 2015 to extract seven million tonnes of coal and to “handle” an overburden of 20 million cubic metres to Mahalakshmi Infrastructure Private Limited-NKAS, a private contractor. According to a ground report prepared by G.K. Srivastav, member of the CIL Safety Board, and Manas Kumar Mukherjee, a member in the Standing Committee on Safety in Coal Mines, in January 2016 some instability was observed in the overburden. A well-known social worker wrote an email letter to the DGMS, with a copy to the Secretary in the Ministry of Labour and Employment, about the violation of safety norms in the Rajmahal opencast project. In May 2016, he also complained about the contravention of mining laws in deep mining. The Director of Mines Safety (S) at Dhanbad did an inspection and dismissed the complaint as false. On December 1, 2016, the DGMS (Safety) wrote to the social worker: “After detailed inquiry on your complaint, the allegations made by you against the management of Rajmahal opencast mine were found incorrect/false, which comes under the purview of Mines Act, 1952.”

The social worker had also pointed out that dumping in the vicinity of the mine was illegal. The “dump” is usually at a distance of 500 m from the actual work area. In the case of this particular mine, the dump was close to the overburden area. According to the fact-finding committee, it actually encircled it. In addition, the foundation of the “dump” was not strong enough. Although these aspects were brought to the notice of the DGMS, it gave the go-ahead for mining. “The word of the department is final. The inspectors do not conduct proper inspections. Whether their reports are based on authentic data and information is not cross-checked. It is declared as a fact,” said Srivastav.

In August, the “benches” in the overburden collapsed following heavy rains. A bench in mining terminology refers to a ledge, which forms a single level of operation above which mineral or waste materials are mined. In order to distribute pressure, benching has to be done properly. On the day of the mishap, workers had told the management that the crack in the dump had widened and they were afraid of continuing to work. On December 27, two days before the accident, workers in the morning shift noticed a slide of dump. A subsidence was noticed once again the next day during the night shift.

Twenty minutes before the accident, the miners alerted the manager about the slide, but he forced them to stay on. Someone even sent a radio message to the control room of the DGMS about the widening crack. Between 7 and 8 p.m., the dump could not hold. The 650 m wide and 110 m high overburden dump collapsed on the workers standing below, taking down with it 23 men. But the other workers were compelled to stay on and dig up the base of the overburden and continue blasting.

Srivastav told Frontline that the AICWF team spoke to the workers who managed to escape. They said workers who were in the “coal bench” area managed to come out but those on the overburden benches could not get out in time. The majority of casualties took place at the overburden bench. Questions as to why the overburden dump was allowed to be taken to such heights or why fault lines were allowed to go undetected or why the overburden was dumped over the edge of the quarry in violation of the safety norms need answers.

“Casualties in underground mining are much higher. It is rare for such accidents to occur in opencast mining. But outsourcing of work has given rise to a steady increase in casualties,” Srivastav said. According to an official estimate, fatalities among contract miners had doubled in recent years.

The accident record of the Rajmahal opencast project is alarming. On September 29, 2001, seven workers died because of the collapse of the haul road. Two years before that, three workers drowned after water inundated the working area. In 2016, three workers were injured following a puncture in the water sump in a deep mining site. It was learnt by the inquiry committee that no regular meetings of safety committees were held and that the area safety and project safety departments were totally defunct. The committee noted that a standing decision to provide slope stability radar at the mine, given its dimensions, was not made available even after the development of a huge vertical crack in the dump. The decision was ignored by the management and the contractor, who apparently wasted precious time measuring the crack.

Coal unions and their federations have often pointed out that accidents occur frequently at overburden dumps in CIL and ECL but there was no separate infrastructure and manpower for disaster management. That was the reason why there was a delay of almost 16 hours before the rescue operation could begin. According to an official note, the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) was deployed for rescue and relief operations.

Working conditions

Before nationalisation of coal mines in 1972, migrant workers were employed in mines; they were compelled to camp near the site and not allowed to bring their families. More than three decades hence, the situation of miners has not changed much.

Migrant labourers are subjected to very much the same working and living conditions that existed in coal mines before nationalisation. Easy to hire and fire, miners are modern-day slaves; they must continue to work in the face of danger as the incident in the Rajmahal opencast project showed.

“Those workers who survived the accident broke down when they narrated their working conditions. They were threatened with dismissal if they spoke or complained to anyone,” Srivastav said.

The camps where the workers stayed were set up in the mining area and on top of the overburden, which was in danger of collapsing any time. Workmen were debarred from venturing out of the camps and forbidden to mingle with the local people.

There was no system of attendance, and the attendance sheet of that particular day was not available, said Manas Mukherjee, who jointly authored the fact-finding report with Srivastav. The AICWF demanded the same, but it was not made available.

The unions and the AICWF have sought a court inquiry as they want specific recommendations for the safety of workers and to fix accountability on contractors who employ the miners. As principal employers, CIL and ECL, were also liable in this case. The federation has demanded the scrapping of private contracts. It has also demanded a complete stop to outsourcing. The inquiry reports set up by the DGMS and CIL are awaited, but they are unlikely to penalise the contractor.

Jharkhand accounts for some 29 per cent of the coal deposits in India. A mineral-rich State, it is no surprise that it will be hosting the global investors summit. It is doubtful that the summit is going to focus on the mining mishap, but the government cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the disaster at its doorstep.

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