Trapped, like canaries in a coal mine

On the top of a mountain overlooking the coal mines, the August weather brings a pleasant breeze during a lull in frequent rains.

This area is around 16km from the city of Quetta and the mountainous terrain is dotted with coal mines, which provide sustenance to hundreds of miners working deep inside them.

As I arrive in the area, I witness miners extract coal from these mines — a practice that has continued here since the days of the British Raj.

A majority of the workers employed by these coalfields have either come from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or Afghanistan. Although their profession is quite risky, and many of their comrades have lost lives while working deep inside the coal mines, their woes have yet to be addressed, amid the apathy of the state and their employers.

Impoverished miners say their families will have to go hungry if they can’t find work

Muhammad Swati is one of these coal miners. As evident from the layer of coal dust on his shy face, the increasing perils surrounding him and his fellow workers have not deterred him from continuing his work deep inside the mines.

The father of four children, Mr Swati has been working as a miner in different coal mines in Balochistan for over two decades. He joined the profession as a teenager and is now in his 40s.

He now wants his two teenage sons to join the profession too. “It is our third generation in the coal mining industry,” he tells Dawn from his perch outside the mine shaft at the end of his shift. “We do not know any other work except coal mining,” a weary Swati adds after a hard day of work.

The British were the first to mine for coal in Balochistan, and the practice has continued unabated since then. Working conditions, however, have gone from bad to worse due to the outdated safety methods and a lack of interest by employers. The neglect has turned these mines into veritable killing fields.

Osama, a colleague of Muha­mmad Swati, echoes similar apprehensions. He goes to mine coal every day, even though several of his comrades have pe­rished inside the same mine. “I am here so that my children can afford to eat two meals per day,” he says as he shares his helplessness with Dawn. “Sometimes, when the mines are closed, my family has to skip meals,” he adds.

Atif Hazara, a mines inspector in Quetta, tells Dawn there are thousands of coal mines in the region that employ over 50,000 miners. “We visit these mines on a regular basis despite their sheer number to prevent untoward incidents,” he says, adding that tragic incidents occur due to hazardous gases and caving in of the coal mines.

From bad to worse
A deteriorating security situation compounds the miners’ woes. Not too long ago, armed suspects abducted four employees of a coal mine from the well-known Habibullah Coal Company, which is situated in the vicinity of the Sorange mining area.

One was killed while others were released. Some say the killing of miners started back in 2012 due to the deteriorating security situation in Balochistan and has continued since then.

However, it seems Mr Swati and his colleagues are not even aware of this threat, nor has anyone told them.

“I know nothing,” is the sentence coal miners utter when asked about security threats to their lives. But when they work on an area where there is no cellular network, who can blame them for being disconnected from the world.

When it comes to coalminers, there are all bad news for all the bad reasons: on Thursday, Mohammad Kazim, who had even though recently quit working as a mines’ area watchman, was reportedly found dead as his bullet-riddled body was found.

Habib Tahir, vice chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), was a part of a fact-finding mission which expressed concerns over human rights violations and poor working conditions in the coal mines of the province.

“We have been looking into the kidnappings and target killings of the coal miners for quite some time now,” he tells Dawn in Quetta. “Many elements are allegedly involved in this practice. Coal miners pay the price when the contractors or the owners do not pay the aforementioned actors in the name of security,” he claims.

“They always tell them to continue working and let them deal with the said elements. But the sword of Damocles always hangs over their heads. And sometimes it does fall,” a rights activist tells Dawn on the condition of anonymity.

Meanwhile, officials at the mines department refuse to entertain questions about the threats to coal miners. It is a “sensitive matter”, they claim.

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