he death of one man is a tragedy; death of more than one is statistics; as Joseph Stalin would have us believe. What Stalin probably meant to say is, when tragedy strikes in a massive scale; the human mind fails to register it as an event capable of comprehension. The mind shuts its cognitive faculties and accepts the tragedy as beyond human control. Time will tell whether death of a coal miner in Bharatpur open cast mine of Mahanadi Coalfields Limited (MCL), Talcher, Odisha, July 24, 2019 will go down in history as a tragedy or just as statistics.
But the death is surely a stark reminder of the abysmal safety standards in mining operations in India and puts a question mark on the professionalism of the mining companies in ensuring safety of miners. Three more miners are still trapped underneath the mountain of overburden (soil overlying a mineral deposit) dump. Their chances of survival appear very bleak. In August 2013, at least 14 people were crushed to death after a heap of coal and overburden dump collapsed on them at MCL’s Kuldiha-Vasundhara open cast mine in Sundergarh district of Odisha. The repetition of a similar tragedy raises a pertinent question; has MCL learnt its lessons? What had the Directorate General of Mines Safety found during its enquiry into the tragic incident in Kuldiha-Vasundhara? What recommendations were made to avert recurrences of such disasters? Was anybody held responsible for the tragic loss of lives? Was any Standard Operating procedure prescribed to ensure safety of miners as well as civilians staying in close proximity of mountains of OB dumps?
As per official statistics, 377 people have been killed in mining of coal, minerals and oil between 2015 and 2017; which translates to loss of one human life in every three days. Out of the all causalities, the coal mining sector contributes more than half the victims. It still remains as one of the most hazardous profession and, therefore, the senior functionaries responsible for coal mining must pay maximum attention to the safety standards, regulations and adherence. The adherence to safety standards must be full proof and non-negotiable.
On December 27, 1975, one of the worst mining disasters had struck in Chasnala in Jharkhand. Chasnala mining tragedy had claimed 380 lives (which is still contested, since the contractual labours were not taken account while arriving at the casualty figure). It was found out that the experts had warned that everything possible should be done to prevent water from accumulating in the old mine. But the warning was never heeded; for which the explosion in the mine was followed by flooding killing 380 miners.
History has a tendency to repeat itself; though this time history was kind enough to limit the tragedy to death of one person (so far). But in MCl’s Bharatpur mines in Talcher also; as stated by few survivors, mining was allowed without draining the water from the pit formed near the OB dump. The OB dump was not spread over a bigger surface to minimise the probability of a collapse. In fact, it has been alleged that had the face of the OB dump been sloped sufficiently, the tragedy could have been averted. The allegations appear to be borne out of common sense. But, at times common sense is the most uncommon commodity. Even in the mine mishap in Meghalaya’s East Jaintia Hills district, which struck in December 2018, there were allegations of flagrant violations of safety norms. In this disaster 15 miners were trapped in the “ratholes”. Some of the survivors recall that the coal was soft. They could understand that there was water seepage that made it soft. But it begs question, as to how was mining allowed under such dangerous circumstances.
Post tragedy, government and MCL may announce compensation packages for the victims. Job assurances in MCL may be given to the next of kin of the victims. The matter will be wiped out from public memory after some time and people will forget to ask who was responsible for the tragedy.
Imagine in Chasnala tragedy, it took more than a year for registration of a criminal charge against four IISCO officials – that too only after former Chief Justice of Bihar submitted a report to the government. The accused officials were tried for long 35 years (yes you read it right – thirty five years). By the time the judgment was pronounced, two of the four accused had already passed away. Other two were sentenced to a year of imprisonment; but they too were let out on bail pending appeal.
Compare this with the indictment of Donald Leon Blankenship, former CEO of Massey Energy company, who was responsible for Upper Big Branch Mine Tragedy in 2010 in Montcoal in the USA. In the Upper Big Branch Mine Tragedy, 29 workers were killed. The powerful CEO of the then 6th largest coal company in the USA was tried for and was found guilty of conspiring to wilfully violate mine safety and health standards. In April 2016, he was sentenced to one year in prison. This was a landmark verdict, in which the CEO of the coal company was held personally responsible for the violation of safety norms. With this verdict, a new benchmark of accountability was set by the criminal justice system in the USA. But we will allow the likes of Warren Anderson (remember Bhopal gas tragedy) to flee from our country and to escape the rigmarole of the criminal justice system. The victims in India will continually ask – ‘Has justice been delivered?’ The poorly paid, vulnerable workers in the rat-holes and those working in the killer mines, overlooked by beastly overburden dumps, will continue to pay the price with their lives. Their family members will continue to wallow in their miseries and wait in despair for justice to be delivered. They will be ground to dust by the labyrinthine rules, procedures and official paraphernalia in an attempt to get the partial comfort of recompense.
Donald Leon Blankenship had stated “It’s like a jungle, where it is survival of the fittest. Unions, communities, people – everybody’s goanna have to learn to accept that in the United States you have a capitalist society and that capitalism, from a business standpoint, is survival of the most productive.”
But, the law of the land ultimately caught up with Donald Leon Blankenship; who was hitherto considered untouchable. The landmark judgment in the USA has already set the cat among pigeons. The mining barons can no longer afford to harp on production at the cost of safety of miners. We would also like to wish that someday justice will be delivered to the victims of mining disasters and manmade mining tragedy will be a thing of the past.
The author is a serving Indian Police Service officer serving in the state of Odisha. The views are personal.