The death of four miners at Anjan Hills coal mines in Chirmiri early this month, raises questions. Also, when tragedy strikes, is the compensation that the families receive adequate?

On the morning of May 6 this year, workers arriving for the morning shift at the Anjan Hills coal mine in the Chirmiri area in Chhattisgarh's Koriya district were asked to wait while a team of mine rescuers assessed the safety of the mine. A gas leak had been detected on the evening of May 4, and the management at South Eastern Coalfields limited had suspended mining operations.

As the workers looked on, six experienced miners including S.B.R. Raju, a Rashtrapati award-winning rescue worker, entered the mine's darkened shaft. According to some accounts, the team soon radioed back to the surface, stating that the leak had been located and that miners were returning.

25-year-old Nirmal Kumar Jagande stood by the mouth face, waiting – much like everyone else – for the rescue team's assessment.

This was his fourth year as a contract worker in the mines surrounding Chirmiri, but his first day at Anjan Hills. A few metres away stood the General Manager for Operations, S.K. Goswami, a 58-year- old veteran with only two years left for his retirement.

Lethal explosion

Hundreds of metres below the surface, the team began its trek back to safety : Ravinder Shah and Dal Bahadur, who were tasked with taking air samples, led the way back, but exhausted by the mine's oppressive heat, stopped for a rest for air at “fresh air base”. Behind them, the rest of the team hurried to catch up.

At 11:45 AM, the ground shook briefly as searing hot gas erupted from the depths of the mine, blew open three gaping holes in the mountain-sidse and incinerated everything in its path. Beams and pillars collapsed around the rescue team as the mine imploded; it would be several days before the corpses were recovered. On the surface, gases burst through the shaft killing S.K. Goswami on the spot, and injuring another 31 miners – four fatally.

Dadulal Jagande was at home with his wife when he was told his son, Nirmal, had been injured in an accident. “By the time I arrived at the hospital,” said Dadulal, “Nirmal was dead.”

In the days following the May 6 explosion, miners and management of the Anjan Hills mine are yet to come to terms with the accident. “Accidents don't happen here,” said a senior employee, “Accidents happen in third degree or second degree gassy mines, not in first degree [mines] like Anjan Hills.”

Methane and Carbon Monoxide are the inevitable by-products of all coal mining; over time, miners have evolved coping strategies. Once a seam has been mined of all its coal, workers “stop” unused passage-ways with reinforced concrete panels nearly a metre thick. In the Anjan Hills mine, workers suspected that a panel had cracked – leaking deadly methane and carbon monoxide into the mine. By the time they diagnosed the problem, it was too late.

“Methane gas kills in minutes,” said Dr R.R. Gajbhaiye, a senior doctor at the State Hospital in Chirmiri, “Both Methane and Monoxide bind themselves to haemoglobin in our blood, paralysing the brain and destroying the cardiovascular system.” Goswami and Jagande died of severe lung congestion as the blistering gas forced its way into their respiratory tract, charring the sensitive lung tissue.

When he signed up as a contract worker at SECL, Nirmal Kumar Jagande did what his father, and his grandfather before him, had done – but with one crucial difference. “Nirmal's grandfather left his permanent job with SECL in 1990 on medical grounds,” said Dadulal, “I got a permanent job as a machine helper in his place.” Twenty years and two cataract operations later, Dadulal can no longer work underground; but company policy has changed.

“The company no longer offers permanent jobs to next of kin,” said Saifullah Khan, Chirmiri Area President of Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), “Now the company relies mainly on contract labour.”

According to Khan, SECL Chirmiri now has an arrangement with several private contractors to assist their permanent workforce of about 10,000. “At least 2000 contract workers like Nirmal are involved in mining work,” said Khan.

As per the National Coal Wage Agreement – VIII, valid up to June 30, 2011, the lowest category of permanent worker in a coal mine is paid Rs. 359.46 per day, along with annual increments, medical provisions and a provident fund contribution. The agreement has no provisions for contract workers. On the day he died, Nirmal would have been paid a daily wage of Rs 80.

Compensation

Since he died in exceptional circumstances, SECL decided to pay his family an ex-gratia payment of Rs 5 lakh, in addition to a worker compensation of about Rs 4 lakhs. Families of the permanent workers shall get Rs. 5 lakh along with compensation and lifetime gratuity.

“This is the first time we have announced an ex-gratia payment for a contract worker,” said Radhe Shyam Singh, Director Personnel SECL, “For permanent workers, we have calculated gratuity assuming that the employee served out his entire tenure, irrespective of the years actually served.”

For instance, the family of permanent employee Anand Mohan Pal, who also died in the blast after many years of service, will receive about 16 lakhs including gratuity, ex-gratia and compensation payments.

However, in the years to come there shall be more and more Nirmal Jagandes and fewer and fewer Anand Pals. “Sophistication is increasing, man power is going down,” said Singh, “We are moving from labour intensive to capital intensive [processes].”According to Singh, about 1500 permanent employees retire every year, and the company absorbs about 1000 new workers. “Only land oustees and project affected persons are offered permanent jobs,” said Singh, “You must realise that for us, land is a raw material to be consumed, not an asset like for other companies.”

The scale of the accident that claimed Nirmal's life has meant that his family has been offered a permanent job at SECL. Nirmal's wife Anita said she'll probably take the job. “We have a three--year-old daughter called Roshini,” she explained, “And I'm four months pregnant, our second.”