Coal and Sunshine

Published in Dawn on May 10 2018

Fumes seep and spiral / Canaries in the coal mine / Chirp their last faint song. — haiku

HOW long will the demise of coal as an energy source take? When will the world finally pull out its miners from the dark, dingy and dangerous shafts? Not very soon, but not in the distant future either. The era of coal is waning. Developed countries are burning less coal for power generation and going for a mix of cleaner renewable energy and natural gas. China, too, is increasingly using solar energy and producing 60 per cent of the total solar cell manufactured in the world. In 2017, the world installed 98 gigawatts of new solar power projects as the cost of solar has fallen by 70pc since 2010.

Yet the demand for coal and the compulsion to extract it at great social cost is increasing in developing economies like Pakistan because coal is cheaper and exists in one’s own backyard. Social cost, in terms of loss of human lives and the mauling of the ecosystem, means little. Had human life and nature mattered, policymakers would have come up with regulations that respected and safeguarded the lives of workers and the surrounding habitat. Recently in two separate accidents of gas explosion and cave-in, at least 23 coal miners lost their lives in Balochistan’s coalfields.

Coal mining has always been an extremely dangerous occupation due to the risks of methane gas explosions, cave-ins and poisonous gas leakages. Beginning from the 18th century, procedures were evolved to contain the risks associated with manual mining. Mechanised extraction techniques, introduced in the 19th century were expanded and refined in the 20th century. Techniques to eliminate or dilute methane emissions have helped reduce methane-related explosions in underground mines. In societies that value human life, rigorous safety procedures, effective regulations and workers’ education have led to significant improvements in coal miners’ safety.

Sadly, Pakistan is not one of the societies that take coal-mining dangers seriously. Small-scale coal mining under a contract system in the informal sector is the norm. Primitive tools of extraction are used and disregard for safety procedures is prevalent. According to an ILO report, the fatality rate in small-scale mining in developing countries is 90 times higher than in industrialised countries.

Pakistan has yet to legislate on and effectively enforce a modern mining law protecting the rights of all stakeholders including workers. Currently, the mining and minerals sector is regulated by the Regulation of Mines and Oilfields and the Mineral Development Act, 1948, under which the provinces have formulated rules. The National Minerals Policy, 2013, now provides guidelines for regulations to promote the ‘private sector-driven mining industry’ and deals with fiscal and administrative regulations.

Workers’ safety is mentioned in just one line. Regulatory measures for environment are spelt out in a sub-section. The 2013 policy does not take into account international standards of implementation. A writ petition was filed with reference to the policy in 2015 in the Islamabad High Court against the appointment of ‘babus with scant generalist knowledge’ as head of the mining industry, instead of qualified geoscientists or mining engineers.

The Sindh Coal Act, 2013, is enacted primarily to allow private coal mine ownership and investment by international corporations. It mentions instituting an inspectorate of coal mines to monitor “health and welfare of coal mine workers, and the provision of training and testing for its staff”. Khyber Pakhtun­khwa was the first to come up with a minerals policy in 2014 that gives adequate guidelines for workers’ health, safety and welfare. The mineral policy was followed by the KP Minerals Sector Governance Act 2017. The province has yet to announce its mines safety act in line with the policy.

In the last 70 years of independence, neither the federal nor provincial governments modernised the only comprehensive law on health and safety and welfare of workers, the Mines Act, 1923, enacted by the British. The Sindh province modified the Mines Act last year and sent it to the law department for vetting. Apparently, the provinces do not give priority to miners’ safety as they belong to the poorest strata of society.

The Thar Coal Block II coal mining and power plant is near completion. Enough information has been generated about the power plant specifications and the electricity it would add to the national grid. Urban planner and architect Arif Hasan has cautioned about environmental and socioeconomic repercussions that are in the process of taking place in Thar. It is time Thar Coal shares stories on the first-ever large-scale mining venture, how successful are its safety measures and what are the terms and conditions of employment for its coal miners.

View this article on Dawn’s website.

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