While the predicament of coal miners in Pakistan is relatively well known, sadly due to frequent fatal underground mining disasters, little comes to light about the life and work conditions of those engaged in artisanal small-scale dimension stone (ie marble, granite, etc) quarrying on the surface, or gemstone mining up on the mountains.
Under-reporting does not mean surface mining and gem digging is less dangerous. Stone mine collapse, causing death and injuries to workers, is not uncommon. In 2020, two such accidents in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa took lives of 29 workers. High-altitude gemstone mining poses great risk as digging is carried out along the veins in the mountain walls accessed by harnesses and ropes which requires climbing skills and agility. Accidents in dimension stone and gemstone mining operations in remote mountainous areas of KP and Gilgit Baltistan largely go unreported. Also, the implications of mining on the community is seldom documented.
While the country watched the induction of the newly elected parliamentarians and celebrated the 71st Independence Day, it was business as usual in the extractive sector in Pakistan, a business that claimed the lives of 15 coalminers in the dark alleys underground on Aug 13-14. The immediate cause, as reported, was methane gas explosion. Or, faulty blasting technique as asserted by the trade union federation.
Perhaps the cause or causes of the accident in the coalmine will never be known. Was it faulty ventilation and a flawed alarm system, inadequate illumination intensity, invisible hazard signage and the absence of an emergency and evacuation plan, or the lack of workers’ training, or a combination of all?
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.
WHILE we often marvel at how the IT revolution is changing our culture, trade, commerce, banking and entertainment, and bask in gadgetry — mobile phones, laptops, LEDs, WiFi etc — we seldom wonder why the benefits of low-cost circuitry is not reaching areas where it is needed the most ie hazardous workplaces.
In the context of business and trade in our country, the purpose of IT is usually efficient management and productivity enhancement — and hardly the health and safety of workers. So it came as a pleasant surprise to learn about a young IT graduate’s resolve to make mining safer through designing and producing ‘smart helmets’ based on cost-effective ZigBee wireless technology.
PAKISTAN ranks as the sixth richest country in respect of coal reserves but those who dig out the black gold from the depths of the earth are the most exploited section of the workforce. Descending into dark, airless tunnels, miners extract coal from simple tools, inhaling coal dust, fearing methane gas explosions, fires, cave-ins, poisonous gas leakages and haulage accidents.
Out of the mines, the workers endure harsh conditions in makeshift mud shacks nearby, or in villages devoid of all basic facilities. Mine workers in Pakistan get a pittance for work considered one of the highest-risk activities in the world in terms of safety and health.