Tuesday, January 18, 2022

A day in the life of an open cast mine in Jharkhand: No salaries, but happy for the job

Post-note ban, money is an issue. But mostly illiterate, the workers focus on the job security the mines offer, keep fear of accidents at bay.

Written by Prashant Pandey |
January 29, 2017 1:05:51 am
demonetisation, demonetisation effects, note ban, post-note ban, note ban effects, jharkhand, demonetisation jharkhand, workers demonetisation, mine workers, jharkhand workers demonetisation, Honhe village, Prem Yadav, PM Modi demonetisation, jharkhand news, india news, indian express news Ganesh Bhuiya is among the mine workers on the blasting team who haven’t received their pay. (Source: Express photo by Partha Paul)

Prem Yadav, 35, a resident of Honhe village, is busy planting explosives into one of the 50-odd boreholes, about 6 metres deep, in a wet coal bed being prepared for blasting. He is among the 40-odd workers tasked with blasting at the Amrapali Open Cast Project (OCP) of Central Coalfields Limited (CCL). The overcast sky is making Yadav worried as blasting is prohibited in the dark. Nearly four hours of rain the previous night has rendered roads leading to the mining pit slippery. As a precautionary measure, dumper trucks and other heavy earthmovers are not working today.

Even as he concentrates on the explosives, Yadav can’t help but ask a nagging question to a few officials around. “Saheb, hum ee kah rahe the ki humko paisa de nahin rahe hain (Sir, I was saying they are not giving us money),” says Yadav, complaining about their long-pending salaries.

Yadav, who started out as a helper, earns Rs 18,000 a month. However, he and other employees of the Hyderabad-based BGR Private Limited haven’t been paid in more than two months, since demonetisation began.

Halinder Sao, a 30-year-old from Kumrang Khurd, is pedalling to the camp of Mahalaxmi Infra Private Limited (MIPL), carrying his miner’s helmet, where workers are to take a call on a strike over their wages. “I used to work as a mason and now I am part of the blasting team. For my experience, I should be getting Rs 5,000 per month. Sometimes, the salary comes, at other times, they promise us Rs 6,000, as advance,” Sao says.

At the MIPL camp meeting, around a hundred workers are gathered. The situation is tense. One of the workers shouts,

“Humko sirf tareekh par tareekh mil raha hai (We are just getting date after date on when we will get the salaries).”

The camp in-charge, Sanjeev Pandey, says they are trying to find a solution. There are three aspects to the problem, he adds, “We have taken over recently. Then came demonetisation, and to top it all, there is the Godda tragedy.”

demonetisation, demonetisation effects, note ban, post-note ban, note ban effects, jharkhand, demonetisation jharkhand, workers demonetisation, mine workers, jharkhand workers demonetisation, Honhe village, Prem Yadav, PM Modi demonetisation, jharkhand news, india news, indian express news Coal bed being prepared for blasting at the Amrapali Open Cast Project, a 100% outsourced mine. (Source: Express photo by Partha Paul)

In Lalmatia coal mines of Eastern Coalfields Limited in Godda district, nearly two dozen workers were killed in a cave-in on the night of December 29. Officials of MIPL, which is doing work in the Lalmatia mines as well, are busy trying to contain the damage. Only 18 bodies have been retrieved so far, with the accident indicating the dangers of unscientific stacking of ‘overburden (the top soil, stones etc that are removed to reach the coal bed)’.

The Lalmatia toll makes 2016 one of the deadliest years for mine workers in India, in what is one of the most dangerous professions in the country.

“We are in the process of integrating the workers’ bank accounts with ours, as we just cannot pay them in cash. There is only so much cash we can withdraw to pay even a portion of their dues,” says an exasperated Pandey, adding that he has proposed payment of Rs 6,000 each as stop-gap till things settle down.

Located near Tandwa in Naxal-dominated Chatra district of Jharkhand, the Amrapali OCP, a 100 per cent outsourced mine, lies next to Magadh OCP. The total peak coal output of the two OCPs is expected to reach 105 million tonnes a year by 2020, making it the hub of coal production for the entire country.

Yadav’s company, BGR Private Limited, was contracted to remove the overburden in July 2014, and the work is in its last stages now. He was among the 250-plus workers hired from the villages affected by the mine, including Honhe, Kumrang Kala, Kumrang Khurd, Binglat and Ursu.

The father of four says this job is one of the best he could expect given that he is illiterate. Workers such as Yadav also have a provident fund account now, which they treasure. “We are surviving on our resources and with the help of family members these days. But how long can we pull along like this?” Yadav says.

Dumper drivers and operators of other heavy movers point to the nearby camps in which hundreds of workers such as them live, to show how their lives have seen a turn for the better because of the mine.

While workers from neighbouring villages go back home after work, those from far-off places stay at these camps in 20 ft by 30 ft dormitories made of corrugated sheets. Electricity, power and the cots are paid for by the companies, and an RO plant ensures clean drinking water. The mattresses, the quilts, the mosquito nets and the occasional TV belong to the camps’ occupants. There is also a badminton court nearby for the miners.

Around 11 am, Shiv Narayan Prajapati, 33, a dumper driver with BGR, is taking a bath at the common tank outside, pouring water using a miner’s helmet. He is surrounded by drivers and operators who have just woken up, after doing a night shift from 8 pm to 4 am.

Prajapati, who is from Balumath area of Latehar district, says he doesn’t mind the hours. “An eight-hour shift means an eight-hour shift. If my replacement hasn’t come, I still return to the camp.”

Shoaib, 30, who is watching TV in one of the dormitories, is from Hajipur in Bihar and is a bulldozer operator. Sitting on his folding cot, one of seven placed side-by-side in the dormitory, he is making ropes from plastic fibre that he has extracted from bags. A few finished rope bundles lie next to him.

“This helps us pass time and we take the ropes home and use them,” says Shoaib, a father of three.

“We pooled in money and got this (TV with set-top box). It cost us nearly Rs 6,000. Usually, we watch news, cricket and films,” says Ram Vriksh Yadav, speaking from inside his mosquito net.

In another dormitory, there is a Telugu film on. Inside are Ramanna, a supervisor, and Praveen, who operates a surface excavator. The roof is re-furbished with thermocol sheets to keep the heat out during summer and manage cold during winter.

A Class X dropout, Praveen, 22, who is from Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh, says, “I like it here. Wherever the company goes, I will go too.”

It’s lunch time by now, and in the nearby canteen, utensils are mounted on platforms in the middle of a hall. Chairs and tables are fixed along the walls.

Krishna, the mess in-charge, says egg curry with rice and sambar is on the menu today, apart from dal and buttermilk. At one point, the canteen served food to around a thousand workers, he adds. “Now, with BGR’s work coming to an end, it is down to 300-400. We seldom repeated the menu earlier. We had idli-dosa, paranthas, seasonal vegetables… Now, of course, we don’t have enough hands to care for variety.”

While the workers are aware of the Godda tragedy, they don’t seem worried. Officials say they have prevented the possibility of at least a similar accident. “Here, we have started plantation on the top-most point of the overburden, which is nearly 530 metres above mean sea level. A rose garden too is coming up,” says OCP Manager Manoj Kumar. At the top grow saplings of karanj, sheesham, amla and mango.

At the Amrapali OCP, they are also covering the mined area with top soil to reclaim excavated land. “At Piparwar, we achieved 130 per cent forestation from what it was earlier,” says a senior CCL official at Ranchi headquarters.

Apart from the uncertainty about salaries, what BGR workers are most worried about is the change of guard at the mine to a joint venture including MIPL, Ambey Mining Private Limited and Godavari.

Shiv Kumar Rawani from Charhi in Hazaribagh district, who drives dumpers, says, “We are hearing that the joint venture guys don’t want drivers with Jharkhand driving licences. They are looking for people from outside the state.”

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