Pandabeshwar (West Bengal) & Mugma (Jharkhand): Sukanto Das, 60, cooled himself with a bamboo hand-fan in the dense heat 350 feet underground in the Eastern Coalfields’ Khottadih colliery in Pandabeshwar block, about 200 km northeast of Kolkata.
He sat on his haunches drenched in sweat during a break, after 45 minutes of hammering and smashing coal seams. The mineworker’s yellow helmet, dulled with dirt, almost swallowed his narrow head, and coal dust specked his skinny bare frame.
Das said he tired easily since he returned to work after a bout of illness in May 2021. He could not say if he was infected with Covid-19.
“I had high fever and cough and cold for two weeks in May and could not work,” said Das. “It set me back by Rs 4,200. As a contract worker I earn Rs 300 a day.”
The Pandabeshwar mines in Raniganj coalfields, like all others, worked non-stop during the Covid-19 pandemic, since coal-mining operations were exempt from government of India lockdowns, and power demand had surged during the pandemic, especially during the second wave from April 2021.
The company that employs Das, the state-owned Eastern Coalfields Limited (ECL) claimed it provided miners protection against Covid-19—social- distance protocols, masks and sanitisers. But down in the mines of Khottadih, where this reporter spent an eight-hour shift, workers were unanimous in saying they were given neither masks nor sanitisers, nor was social distance maintained. The government in New Delhi disregarded pleas to consider them frontline workers for vaccination.
ECL has dragged its feet on vaccine drives for its 28,946 semi-skilled and unskilled coal workers across 78 coal mines, said Vijay Kumar, an overseer at Khottadih colliery.
Miners need to “weigh the options to be vaccinated”, Nipen Bouri, 35, a coal loader, told Article 14. “To get vaccinated we would need to forgo a day’s pay, and the vaccine too comes at a cost, reimbursement for which from Easter Coalfields entails massive paperwork.”
Bouri, who works at the Sonpur Bazari open cast mine, also in the Pandabeshwar block, spent Rs 350 to get himself vaccinated in a private hospital in Durgapur. If he were to have it reimbursed, he would have to travel 80 km to Sanctoria, ECL headquarters, forgoing a day’s pay. Once the papers are verified it can take over 90 days for the reimbursement, if the paperwork is satisfactory.
Das’s fellow worker Nemai Mahato was also sick in May, only, he knew he had Covid-19. Mahato, 38, returned to work within ten days but hasn’t been vaccinated yet. “I do want to be vaccinated but there is a shortage of vaccines, and I will also have to take a day’s leave, unpaid,” he said.
Das and Mahato were among at least 450 workers on the eight-hour day shift in Unit 1 of Khottadih mine, which employs about 1,600 workers, temporary and permanent. It is one of eight coal mines in the Pandabeshwar block with an workforce of about 13,000.
World’s Largest: Powered By Misery
Over 70% of India’s electricity is generated by coal-fired power plants. Day and night, at least 110,000 contractual workers of the government of India-owned Coal India Limited (CIL), mine coal in poor conditions in underground and open-cast coal mines to meet the demand.
The world’s largest coal company, CIL was created when coal production was nationalised between 1973 and 1975, and employs 350,000 across India. It has seven wholly-owned subsidiaries, one of those being ECL.
ECL operates fourteen coalfields in Jharkhand (districts Dhanbad, Godda and Deoghar) and 73 in Bengal, the two regions separated by about 70km and two small rivers, the Barakar and the Damodar. West Bengal is home to India’s first coalfield, the Raniganj colliery, founded in 1774 by the East India Company.
Das started his work life in the Raniganj colliery, adjacent to the Pandabeshwar mines, at age 20. A native of the area, he has worked 40 years in the coalfields. There were no other jobs. He started by supplying coal to the local market in sackloads ferried on his head. Later, he saved enough to buy a bicycle, and joined Khottadih as a contract miner in 2000.
Miner Matters: Covid Deaths & Vaccination
In Khottadih, Kumar, the overseer, said many more died of Covid-19 than the 10 employees (of 450 workers) officially certified as having died of the virus, with an unknown number infected at work
Kumar said the onus of getting vaccinated was on the workers and employees due to shortage of vaccines at hospitals like Kalla hospital in Asansol dedicated for coal workers.
Coal India’s announcements of efficient vaccine drives for miners were “tall claims”, “mere talk”, supervisors and union officials said.
“Each one of us had to rely on ourselves for inoculation,” said Kumar. “Many contractual workers at mines are yet to be vaccinated.”
But it is not contractual workers alone who feel abandoned by their company whose running slogan on the website is “Our Miners Nation’s Pride”.
Even permanent employees have had a rough time. Sarega Bari, 58, was a pump operator at the Gopinathpur colliery in Jharkhand’s Mugma for 25 years before he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2019.
ECL did not declare Sarega, a permanent employee, medically unfit for work in spite of a certificate to the effect from National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) Bangalore, but he was relieved from duty, his son Dev Sagar (28) said, which meant no income.
Within months, the pandemic swallowed the savings of the seven-member family that depended on Sarega’s salary. Sagar said he was forced to borrow from a moneylender for the family to get by. Sarega was not considered for vaccination by ECL.
“We did not receive our father’s salary,” Sagar said, “just half the amount trickled in in the next quarter.” A request to ECL to give Sarega’s post to a family member received no response.
ECL executives Article 14 spoke to provided only estimates of numbers vaccinated. Mohammad Yusuf Ansari, general manager of the Pandabeshwar coalfields, said about 70% of 13,000 employees were vaccinated by early October. He conceded a scarcity of vaccines. The bulk of the vaccinated were permanent employees and their dependents. Just 25% of the 7,712 had been vaccinated by the end of September.
Somnath Chatterjee, chief medical officer of ECL, told Article 14 that in all, there had been “50% vaccination coverage”.
Shujit Bhattacharya, a coal workers’ union representative, told Article 14 that the union's efforts pushed ECL to seek vaccines for its workers in June 2021. “It is only after our demands and pressure on Coal India that it bothered to place an order of vaccines with the Centre,” said Bhattacharya.
Till August 2021, the official number of Covid-19 deaths in all nine subsidiaries of Coal India Limited was 850, D D Ramanandan, leader of Centre of Indian Trade Union (CITU) in CIL told Article 14.
An ECL official, seeking anonymity since he was not authorised to talk to the media, told Article 14 that “complete records” of the number of Covid-19 affected employees were not updated because of “poor coordination” between ECL units in Bengal and Jharkhand.
Ganesh Dhar, former ECL employee and head of a Bharat Colliery union in Nirsa block of Dhanbad district, alleged that ECL officials under-reported the numbers of employees infected and those dead to safeguard their reputation. Without a Covid-19-marked death certificate, survivors received no compensation, let alone the ex-gratia of Rs 15 lakh CIL announced, Dhar told Article 14.
CIL paid around Rs 40,000 crore via cesses and levies for the year. In April 2021, the first month of the deadly second wave, CIL recorded high coal production, conceding at the same time that most of its employees were infected in the second wave but continued to work despite the threat to life. Yet the company never prioritised the demand for frontline status for its workers, said Dhar.
CIL’s 2020-21 annual sustainability report set aside Rs 66 crore for health and safety of coal employees. Covid-19 hospitals were set up in Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka but ECL did not have one.
Ramanandan said that the Northern Coalfields Limited, Singrauli is the only subsidiary to have successfully vaccinated its employees. All others have been sluggish on the inoculation drive, Ramanandan said.
Tuberculosis Town: Post-Covid Concerns
Even under normal circumstances, access to health services for coal miners among whom tuberculosis is a frequent condition, is patchy.
Though data collection on chronic respiratory diseases is state-mandated, in practice record-keeping is sketchy, more than a million missing cases annually that are not reported and often go undiagnosed. Respiratory diseases such as tuberculosis, bronchitis and asthma are common among populations in close proximity to coalfields, said Dr Abhijit Kumar, a physician in Dhanbad town.
In this scenario, the delta variant of Covid-19 virus that largely affected patients’ lungs, worsened existing vulnerabilities to the point of fatality.
The Mugma regional hospital that caters to a population of 35,000 is 36 km from the Dhanbad district headquarters and the only option available for immediate medical help for the mining area.
Equipped for only routine check-ups with two doctors and three nurses, the regional hospital was in no position to cope with the numbers of Covid-19-infected people, medical superintendent Dr Raman Prasad told Article 14. The one other staff member, a cleaner, Lakhan Ram, said all that the hospital could do was refer patients to Dhanbad or Durgapur.
Cardiologists and physicians have reported an uptick in lung and heart related cases in Jharkhand’s coal towns of Dhanbad, Bokaro, Hazaribagh, Ramgarh and Palamu.
But there has been no concerted effort to record, post-Covid-19, said Dr S Zafarullah, Dhanbad district tuberculosis officer, the failing health of workers who risked life and limb to mine the coal that brings India its electricity.
(Saurav Kumar is an independent journalist reporting on public health and rural India.)