Courting death for a living: Pakistani city gets dead body a week from coalmines
Its late afternoon, but workers at Old Baazi Khel coalmine are busy extracting coal with different tools and loading it onto trolleys to be transported to the surface through a lift.
The coalmine is in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Darra Adam Khel area. Not long ago, the region was famous for its illegal weapons industry and militancy. Now, it’s a coalmining hub. About 800 people work at Old Bazi Khel coalmine and almost all belong to the picturesque and impoverished northern district of Shangla.
Nazar Amin, 55, has been working as a laborer in Darra Adam Khel for the last 15 years. He is a resident of Alpuri region of Shangla. He says, they are compelled to do this job as there is no alternative.
“Our leaders aren’t providing good job opportunities to us. Unfortunately there is no business in our area, so what should we do?” asks Amin. Reportedly 70,000 people of the district have been working in the coalmine business across the country.
Unfortunately safety standards in these mines aren’t up to the mark and even a minor negligence could prove disastrous in human and material terms.
There is hardly any incident, which doesn’t lead to fatalities from among the resident[s] of Shangla. In May, 23 people were killed after a mine collapsed in the Sur-range mining field, 60-kilomters east of Quetta. Among them, 20 miners belonged to Shangla.
Similarly at least nine people were killed in September after an explosion occurred in Darra Adam Khel mine. All the dead belonged to the Shangla district. There is hardly any family in the mountainous district which hasn’t suffered from the mining blasts.
“On average Shangla receives a dead body every week,” said Khalid Khan, a Shangla-based journalist. He criticized the government for doing nothing for residents of the district. There are no job opportunities so people are compelled to put their lives at risk. “The people of Shangla are mainly poor, that’s why they opt for risky jobs. They are being paid well and they don’t care about the risk factor,” says Khalid Khan. “Cemeteries in Shangla are full of coalminers.”
In 2017-2018, majority of the people killed in coalmines were youngsters. There are also many miners who are afflicted by various diseases, and some families who cry for compensation—and the list goes on. Khalid Khan suggests the lush green valley has dozens of tourist spots and if the government gives due attention, job opportunities could be provided to the poor.
Darra Adam Khel was once a ‘no go’ area for outsiders, but now the mining business has removed that fear. “In fact it’s enhanced the economic conditions of the local people. Bazaars are full and they are switching towards new businesses,” says Malik Lateef, one of the owners of Old Bazi Khel coalmine.
He says, their administration has provided the basic amenities to the workers including masks, shelters, caps, lights, and shoes. “If some unfortunate incident happens, we pay half a million rupees to the bereaved family apart from transporting the dead body[s] to their home,” said Lateef.
“It’s not only the miners or owners who are benefiting from this business but certain people like mechanics and transporters also earn a good amount,” says Lateef. He adds that we don’t impose any restrictions on the workers. They want to finish their work as soon as possible to earn more money.
Nazar Amin has now been joined by his teenage son in the same mine. He said, it was difficult for him to support his education apart from meeting domestic needs. The fair-skin Amin looks completely different at the mine.
Despite wearing a mask, he is all black from head to toe as a thin layer of coal dust envelops him as soon as he empties the coal trolley that his colleagues have sent up from the mine.
Amin says, “Everyone is certain about their imminent death as nothing can be predicted inside a mine. A person returning from the mine is like a living ghost.”
The scenic valley of Shangla is not suitable for agriculture. People only grow maize to support their families or cattle. It was one of the worst affected districts during the 2005 earthquake that shook the whole country in which more than 70,000 people died. Five years later, the whole district suffered devastation when floods hit the area.
Qaiser Jamal is the former member of Pakistan’s National Assembly from Darra Adam Khel. He says it’s unfortunate to see so many casualties in the coalmine sector but on the other hand he accuses laborers for taking the precautionary measurement lightly. “Sometime the laborers take their job casually and do not follow the standard operating procedures,” added Jamal. Little additional care could save the lives of laborers, he said.
Jamal praises the residents of Shangla and says no other people of the country can match their skills. “They live in mountainous terrain and carry weight to higher altitudes since their childhood. This is how they have an advantage over the rest of the labor force”.
He adds that though the job is very tough, at the end of the day they earn a small amount to support their extended families. Jamal acknowledges concerns of the people and says the government would soon bring reforms for the betterment of laborers.
Afzal Khan agrees with Jamal. He is happy about the services being provided at this coalmine. The 32-year-old has been working as a field manager since 2009. He has followed on the footsteps of his elders when he joins one of the hardest professions.
“It’s a very risky job from day one. Miners contract chest, lungs, eye, skin diseases, even hepatitis very easily,” says Afzal Khan. “It’s like playing with death.”
Khan is a father of two children. He visits his family after every two months and spends a week with them. “They [the family] don’t know in what environment we work. They see us in neat and clean dresses, which hardly reflects the misery and pain that we suffer down in the coalmines,” Khan points out.
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