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Fatal opencast coal mine cave-in highlights India's poor mining safety record

06 March 2017

Some 23 miners and dozens of vehicles were buried when about 250 metres of stripped overburden collapsed on December 29, 2016, at the Lalmatia opencast mine in Jharkhand, north-eastern India. In an investigation, Indian Express noted that this disaster ended an exceptionally dangerous year for mining in India, with a fatality every three days during the first six months.

Stock image
Stock image

Only 18 bodies were recovered under the tonnes of rubble and rescue efforts were hampered by poor weather including dense fog, along with unstable debris piles. The mine is owned by Eastern Coalfields Limited – a subsidiary of Coal India Ltd, the world's largest coal miner – and operated by Mahalakshi Infracontract Pvt Ltd.

The Ministry of Mines termed the Lalmatia accident an “unprecedented” event. “Prima facie, it is observed that the incidence is unprecedented, since an area of 300 m length by 110 m wide solid floor of the Over Burden dump area has slid down by about 35 m involving around 9.5 million cubic metres of earth material. This could be due to failure of the bench edge along the hidden fault line/slip,” the ministry said in a statement.

Witnesses on the ground confirmed that there were warning signals in terms of a cascade fall of boulders at least three hours before the collapse.

According to The Hindu, safety concerns raised by activists at the mine were dismissed, including one complaint that was sent to the Prime Minister's Office and forwarded to the state's Director General of Mines Safety (DGMS).

The activist who filed the complaint evidently had photos showing how safety concerns were overlooked "by not maintaining a proper bench while digging deep into the open cast mine. The overburden was dumped in a de-coaled area in huge quantities which led to the collapse," he told The Hindu.

Accusing the mining company of negligence, Jharkhand’s first chief minister Babulal Marandi said outsourcing of mining operations to private parties risked the miners’ lives in the area. The Hindustan Times said that illegal mining was being carried out in the area in connivance with local leaders, contractors and officials. The ECL outsourced mining work to private companies that did not take safety measures.

Coal India Ltd’s official statistics showed that the fatality and serious accident trends were improving, but the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in its 2014 report titled ‘Views on Mine Safety in India’ claimed the frequency of incidents has increased in the recent years.

CIL casualty statistics - Source: Indian Express
CIL casualty statistics - Source: Indian Express

India’s statistics indicate coal mining has become safer over the past few decades. Between 1990 and 2015, the average number of serious injuries per million tonnes of coal mined has fallen from 2.7 to 0.27. The average number of fatalities has also fallen from 0.69 to 0.07.

But the Hindu says much of this is because of the greater mechanisation of mining which massively increases output per miner. If calculated in terms of 300,000 man-shifts, the fatality rate has only halved from 0.3 to 0.15 during that same time.

Indian Express estimated that in 2015 seven lives were still lost on average for every 100 million tonnes of coal mined in India. The mining sector fatality count for the first six months of 2016 was 65, with a further 122 suffering a serious injury.

Alongside ship-breaking, mining is the most dangerous profession in India.

The country has 569 coal mines, 67 oil and gas mines and 1,770 non-coal mines which provide direct employment to about 1 million on a daily average basis and an overall sector contribution of about 5% to the country’s gross domestic product.

Between 2009 and 2013, there have been 752 documented fatalities in mining operations in India, according to the Office of Directorate General of Mines Safety, Ministry of Labour and Employment. These include accidents at mines run by state-owned CIL, Neyveli Lignite Corporation and Singareni Collieries.

The Indian Express points out that a major reasons given for enacting the Coal Mines (Nationalisation) Act in 1973, which mandated the takeover of private sector mines, was their poor safety records. Yet, work in public sector mines remains a highly dangerous.

Lack of investment in coal mines is cited as one of the main reasons for the high casualties, and India’s coal industry has some obvious weak points. It has among the highest rates of fatalities and injuries from the collapse of roofs and walls in the world, and inundation fatalities have also seen an increase in the past few decades. India also has unusually high incidents of accidents caused by the surface movement of heavy machinery.

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