How death stalks life in coal mines

Published May 08, 2019 01:06pm


Coal being transported  in open bogies in port Qasim area, Karachi | photo by Fahim Siddiqui, White Star
Coal being transported in open bogies in port Qasim area, Karachi | photo by Fahim Siddiqui, White Star

Hameed Jan Haji knows what it means to be inside a coal mine. A septuagenarian, he no more does heavy work of cutting and extracting coal but still clears coal dust or cooks for the miners in Machh, Balochistan — making 400 rupees a day. Gap-toothed but sturdy, he confidently fishes out an identity card as if his whole being is dependent on it. The card is issued by the Pakistan Mineral Development Corporation (PMDC), a public sector agency, and shows him as a registered miner.

It does not seem to matter to him that the mere mention of PMDC invokes memories of a spate of tragic incidents over recent years. In 2011, methane gas accumulated in a poorly ventilated PMDC-owned mine in the Sor Range area outside Quetta, causing multiple explosions that decimated the colliery and killed 45 miners. In May last year, 23 miners died in two separate incidents on the same day in different parts of Balochistan. Seven of them were working in a PMDC mine.

It was also in one of the subterranean burrows of another PMDC mine that Haji got trapped. He was busy doing tikkum – breaking coal – when the mountain above him groaned. It was a ‘bump’ — a seismic event caused by an explosion or the collapse of wooden cross-beams that support a mine’s roof. On hearing the rumble, he told his companions to leave. He was about to pick up his implements before rushing to the exit when the roof collapsed and blocked the mine’s shaft. He found himself confined in a narrow space with his back against the coalface.

“When a mountain falls inside [a mine], it sucks away all air,” says Haji. Wrinkles in his face deepen as he strains to recall that day in the year 2000. Or was it 2002? He is not sure. “It got suddenly hot in there. I turned and buried my face in coal.” It was moist from water sprayed to keep coal dust from rising. Three days and nights, he stayed trapped in that spot — no more than a foot in length and width because he could only either sit or stand. He would stand when his legs ached from crouching, hurt from being pressed against the rock face, and would sit when he got tired standing. Occasionally – only when he heard the mountain creak, afraid it would come down on him – he turned on his headlamp, mindful that its battery may run out.

“I did not know what would happen to me,” he says, solemn in the way characteristic of miners resigned to the inevitability of a disaster or having survived one. “I knew death was inevitable but my only regret was that my family would not find my grave. And if they did, they would only find my bones here.”

Haji had no way of knowing that his colleagues, busy digging up the place for days to rescue him, had brought along a coffin to carry his supposedly decomposing remains for a quick burial.

He waited and prayed. Sometime during that long agonising wait, he fell asleep. “I was terribly thirsty. I dreamt that two men, their faces black from soot, came to me with a bottle. They asked me to drink from it. I took a sip and woke up protesting that it was some medicine. There was nobody around but I felt refreshed as if I had drunk from a cool well.”

On the third day, his limbs gave up. “My body went lifeless but my hope was intact.” Some air, he says, must have trickled in from somewhere to keep him alive.

Later that day he heard the diggers plowing. ‘Digging’ in mines entails a lot more than just removing layers of earth. It means supporting a dug-up tunnel with wooden cross-beams before moving ahead. It is a painfully slow and painstaking process.

Eventually they came, having dug a hole barely enough for him to squeeze through. “I did not cry on seeing them but they did,” Haji says.

After he walked out alive, he did not think for a minute that his was a dangerous vocation. He could not give up mining. If not for himself, he had to work for his dependents — his wife and nine-year-old son. And he did not know what else to do.

Back in Shangla district, in northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, his family did not know what he had been through. He went home to see them soon after his rescue but returned to work in coal mines only a few days later — like he has been doing since 1953 when, as a 12-year-old, he first came to Balochistan along with his father. To get a job, he told a mine contractor he could cook.

That is exactly what he does now after having spent decades working inside mines. “I have ended up where I started,” Haji says. “What did I do with my life?”

This excerpt is part of the Herald's May 2019 issue. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.