The mining of coal has continued even during the COVID-19 lockdown. But, what about the mineworkers’ health and safety?

Mining activities were exempted from the lockdown by the Union Home Ministry. The Directorate General of Mines Safety issued a circular to ensure the safety and protection of the mineworkers during the coronavirus pandemic. But, what is the ground reality? A Gaon Connection report from Raniganj Coalfield in Paschim Bardhaman district of West Bengal

Aritra Bhattacharya
| Updated: May 23rd, 2020

More than half of India’s total installed power generation capacity of 370 gigawatt (GW) comes from thermal power plants situated across the country. On March 25, when the country was put under a nationwide lockdown by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, mining operations were exempted. The Union Ministry of Home Affairs issued guidelines on March 25 reading: “coal and mineral production, transportation, the supply of explosives and activities incidental to mining operations.”

Thereafter, on March 30, the Directorate General of Mines Safety (DGMS), Indian government’s regulatory body for safety in mines and oil-fields, issued a circular stressing “coal and mineral production is essential to ensure that the nation smoothly passes through the present crisis”, and outlined a string of measures to ensure workers in mining and allied activities, like loading and transport, were protected the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

Gaon Connection recently travelled across Raniganj Coalfield, the birthplace of mining in the country which also produces the best non-coking coal used in heat-intensive industries, to assess the impact of lockdown on coal mining and related activities. Raniganj Coalfield is spread over Paschim Bardhamman, Birbhum, Bankura and Purulia districts of West Bengal and is owned by Eastern Coalfields Limited (ECL).

Discussions and interviews were held with the mineworkers, managers, contractors, trade unions and officials of the ECL to understand what safety measures have been put in place for COVID-19 and protection of the mineworkers’ health and livelihoods.

Although the coal mining has continued on a reduced scale in the last two months of the lockdown, safety guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19 haven’t always been adhered to, thereby placing the health of workers in the coal and allied sectors at a considerable risk. Mitun Mandal, a contractual worker in the Kalidaspur underground mine said, “Some masks were distributed among permanent workers in our colliery, but contract workers were not provided any protective equipment. Sanitisers were also in short supply at the mine premises.”

Transport and other services were also severely affected by lockdown-related restrictions on movement, inconveniencing mine workers and leaving drivers, helpers and loaders without wages for weeks. “The police did not permit many of my co-workers living in the neighboring districts to travel to the mine throughout the lockdown period. Those who did not attend work were not paid any wages,” said Dugai Murmu, a contractual worker in the Mithani underground mine.

A protest over lack of health facilties and check-ups at the Jhanjra colliery on May 17

COVID-19 guidelines for mines

In its March 30 circular, the DGMS outlined a list of measures that owners, agents and managers of mines should undertake to control infection and spread of COVID-19. These included proper cleaning and frequent sanitisation of workplaces, stoppage of work in underground mines where social distancing was not possible, limiting the number of workers in mechanised opencast and underground mines, adherence to distancing norms, and providing sanitisers, masks and personal protective equipment to workers.

The DGMS also asked every mine manager to prepare a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) in adherence to these guidelines so that the safety and health of workers engaged in mining was not jeopardised.

On March 30 itself, India’s Chief Labour Commissioner Rajan Verma issued an order to the heads of regional labour commissions , asking them to make “rigorous efforts” to ensure all public and private sector enterprises, employers and contractors in their jurisdiction pay full wages to permanent and contractual workers, even if they weren’t able to render their services during the lockdown.

Letter to ECL demanding payment of lockdown wages for all contractual employees

Dip in coal production

A major part of Raniganj Coalfield lies in the Asansol and Durgapur sub-divisions of Paschim Bardhaman district in West Bengal. The area is home to the Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC), independent India’s first multipurpose river valley project, and produces thermal power, steel, heavy machinery, fertilisers, chemicals and sponge iron, among other things.

Most of these industries and ancillary units and businesses halted operations when the lockdown was declared. This brought about a sharp dip in the demand for coal and electricity. Accordingly, Eastern Coalfields Limited – a Coal India subsidiary that owns and operates most mines in Raniganj Coalfield – scaled-down daily production in all its mines.

“Apart from the closure of industries due to the lockdown, lack of transport and restrictions on movement severely impacted the demand for coal. Since our customers were lifting far less coal from depots, we had to scale down adjust production accordingly,” an official of Eastern Coalfields Limited’s Sanctoria office told Gaon Connection on condition of anonymity.

Demand for coal remained low as even as the lockdown was relaxed in late April and industrial units were allowed to resume operations with restrictions. Gaon Connection found most industrial units in the area were still shut in mid-May, whereas a handful were running with limited strength. Migrant workers have already left for their native places, and local people claimed they were unable to reach industrial units due to curbs on movement and lack of public transport.

A protest over lack of health facilities and check-ups at the Patmohna colliery on May 14

Unsafe operations in underground mines

Although some Coal India subsidiaries ordered stoppage of work in a few underground mines in pursuance with the DGMS circular of March 30, Eastern Coalfields Limited continued operations in all its underground and opencast mines, said Eastern Coalfields Limited officials.

Gaon Connection visited three underground mining sites in the Raniganj coal belt, where half the total workers strength was present. Mine supervisors and workers associated with Eastern Coalfields Limited claimed physical distancing measures were being implemented in open-cast pits, but it was near impossible to do so in underground mines.

“Underground mines are cramped, dank spaces where there is little room to move your body, forget maintaining distance with other workers, it is also very difficult to sanitise such spaces all the time,” a mine supervisor at the Ukhra underground mine who requested anonymity told Gaon Connection.

“In such circumstances, regular health check-ups of workers is absolutely essential,” said Sujit Bhattacharjee, president of the Khadan Thikadar Mazdoor Sabha, affiliated with Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). The Sabha was among a host of other trade unions like Thika Sramik Adhikar Union, CITU, Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) and All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) with presence in the coal belt, that approached the chairman and managing director of Eastern Coalfields Limited over an email within the first week of the lockdown, requesting to ensure thermal screening, sanitisers, masks and personal protective equipment be made available to all the workers in the mines.

Although the company officials claimed safety precautions were being adhered to in all the mines, workers complained thermal screening, sanitisers, masks and protective equipment were not provided in many mines. “Thermal screening, sanitisers and masks were made available in our colliery following protests by workers in the first half of April. Even then, their supply was far lesser than the requirement such that most contractual workers did not receive any protective equipment,” said a worker in the Patmohna colliery, requesting anonymity.

Workers and trade unions with a strong presence in the coal belt also organised and participated in several protests in mining sites as well as urban areas, demanding proper sanitisation and health check-up facilities in mines.

A protest over lack of health facilties and check-ups at the Rajmohan colliery

Loss of livelihoods

Permanent and contractual workers of Eastern Coalfields Limited who attended work through the lockdown said they received full wages, as mentioned in the Union Home Ministry’s guidelines and the DGMS circular. But many contractual workers, who were unable to report to the mining site on account of restrictions on movement, alleged they had not been paid any wage since the first day of the lockdown on March 25.

Among them was Anil Paswan, a mining machinery operator who works in the Amrapali open-cast mine in Jharkhand’s Chhatra district. Paswan was visiting his family in Jamuria village a few kilometres inside the West Bengal border when the lockdown was declared. “I have not been able to go to Tandwa (in Chhatra district) because of the ban on inter-state travel,” he told Gaon Connection.

“The contractor through whom I got work in the Amrapali mine said he was only being paid for those who reported for work, so he could not pay me,” he added. Other workers complained contractors had stopped answering calls or switched off their phones after pleading helplessness regarding payment of lockdown wages.

There are hundreds of thousand truck drivers, helpers and loaders in the Raniganj coal belt engaged in the transport of coal, which provides them a livelihood. This activity, too, has been affected by the lockdown. “The police stop us when we go to collect passes from factories and coal depots. As a result, although we are keen to work and need money desperately, we are forced to sit at home,” said Manoj Yadav, a representative of truck drivers and helpers in Asansol who have not earned a penny during the entire lockdown.

“Contractual workers account for close to 70 per cent of those dependent on mining and allied activities in the area,” said Sujit Bhattacharjee from Khadan Thikadar Mazdoor Sabha, which was among a host of trade unions in the area that sent letters to Eastern Coalfields Limited and the district administration within days of the first edition of the lockdown, urging them to ensure contractual workers were paid lockdown wages in full and on time.

“We also held protests urging the authorities to ensure workers in the informal and unorganised sector, like drivers, helpers and loaders are paid full wages,” said Sudipta Pal from the Thika Sramik Adhikar Union, which also wrote to the Eastern Coalfields Limited.

However, company officials said their hands were tied. “Most contractual workers are hired through contractors and agencies. The latter are paid by us on a piece-rate basis; for lifting or transporting coal, for instance. We have urged them to pay full wages to those unable to report to work, but we cannot force them to do so,” said an official on condition of anonymity.

Volunteers hold placards during a protest demanding provision of health facilities and recognition of the rights of workers. The protest was organised organised by Asansol Civil Rights Organisation on May 17

Prolonged crisis?

Workers and trade unions stressed urgent measures like provision for regular, on-site health check-ups, sanitisers, masks and transport were necessary to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on workers in coal and allied sectors.

Trade unions like Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS), Colliery Mazdoor Sabha of India and Thika Sramik Adhikar Union are also demanding the government to provide contractual and unorganized sector workers with monthly allowance  ranging between Rs 5,000 and Rs 7,500 to see them through the crisis, as most of them did not receive any lockdown wages.

“This allowance is crucial not only for contract workers in the mines, but also for those like drivers, loaders and helpers who are dependent on the coal sector but have no money even for their day-to-day sustenance. Urgent efforts are required to address the crisis among them,” said Sudipta Pal from the Thika Sramik Adhikar Union.

This demand for compensatory allowances has also been advanced by smaller unions in the Raniganj Coalfield, like Khadan Thikadar Mazdoor Sabha and Thika Sramik Adhikar Union. Like central trade unions, they are opposed to structural reforms in the coal sector announced by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on May 16, and are part of a joint action committee constituted at the local level to resist the changes.

This committee, which held a meeting in Asansol on May 17, feels reforms will weaken the rights and entitlements of coal sector workers, already pushed to the brink on account of the lockdown, and has vowed to organise protests across all mines in the area in coming weeks to stall the “corporatisation of the coal sector.”