Sakina, 23, remembers the last words her husband Zahidullah said when he was leaving home to go work in a coal mine.
“He had said if he died in the coal mine, his children would get compensation but if he died a natural death in his hometown, they would not get any money,” she said.
Sakina now lives with her 85-year-old mother-in-law and two children, three-year-old Usman and an 18-months-old baby girl, in a tiny mud hut in the Zara village in Shangla district’s Alpuri tehsil. Zahidullah and his younger brother were killed in a coal mine accident in Balochistan in 2018.
The brothers were no strangers to the risks of coal mining. Their own father had died in a Balochistan coal mine when Sakina’s husband was just a boy of eight, Sakina’s mother-in-law said. When the dead bodies of the brothers were brought back, she said they were so badly burned she could not identify their faces.
The stories of the families of departed colliers of Alpuri and Kana tehsils in Shangla are not much different. Young consumed by deadly coal mines. Women widowed at young ages. Families crippled with debts.
Half of the 186 coal miners who were killed in different coal mine accidents in Pakistan in 2019 belonged to the Shangla district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, according to the Pakistan Mine Worker Federation (PMWF).
Many more Shangla residents were injured or permanently disabled in coal mine accidents.
Coal mining is tough work and mostly young people are recruited to do the hard labour underground. A majority of the dead are between the ages of 15 and 30.
Poverty and lack of job opportunities force the locals in to coal-cutting work, Ali Bash Khan, the senior vice president of the PMWF, said.
“It is a fact that mine incidents occurred due to the negligence of inspectors, contractors and mines managers because they do not care about humans but to send the poor miners into subterranean coalmines,” Mr. Khan said.
Contractors frequent the local restaurants in the area to recruit coal miners, brandishing advance money as an incentive. On joining a coal mine, a labourer may make as little as 10,000 rupees a month or as high as 60,000 rupees a month — depending on his experience and the physical strength the work requires.
Mining season peaks in winters so the demand for miners increases between October and March every year. In summers, coal production goes down as miners stay in their villages doing farming.
Sakina said her husband was a daily wager and earned Rs. 400 a day.
“He wanted to rebuild his house and get his children educated,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes. “For these dreams, he had gone to Balochistan but he lost his life along with his brother.”
Sakina and the other widows of the coal miners rely on their neighbours’ charity and financial assistance. Their children eat the food the neighbours offer them.
Aqal Zeba, 18, said her husband Irshad was the fourth brother in the family to die in a coalmine incident. All the other three brothers were also married. She is the fourth widow in the household. Her mother-in-law cries every time she remembers her sons.
“In my final conversation with Irshad on the phone the night of his death, he had told me he will not come back until his new house work is not completed and he had not paid the borrowed amount of shopkeepers,” Zeba said.
She said her husband did not get to see the new house but his dead body was received there. Her second child was born two months after her husband’s death.
The four brothers of this family died in the same mine in Balochistan within a three-year period. Their four widows and 11 children now live on the mercy of neighbours in the Miankaly area of Shangla.
Zeba said she has no answers when her children ask when their father would come home. They still owe Rs. 190,000 for the construction of the house to vendors and are waiting for the death compensation from the mining company.
Wahidullah, 12, and his younger brother, 10, work at a local restaurant on Rs. 300 daily wages. Their father was allegedly abducted by unknown assailants along with 15 other Shangla coal miners in 2011 and not recovered yet. Wahidullah said he wishes to get education for his better future but he has to earn a livelihood for his family.
The dead miner’s sons usually also grow up to go for mining work. Even students work in the subterranean mines.
Ikramullah, 22, was injured in a mine incident three years ago and is now physically unfit as his leg was broken. His father, who had worked in different mines for 30 years, suffers from lungs illness.
Ikramullah said he never saw any inspector at the mines during his three years working there. However, local contractor had monitored their work.
According to the Shangla Coal Miners Workers Welfare Association (SCMWA), around 4000 miners are suffering from lungs illness alone in Shangla.
Rahimuddin worked In coal mines for 14 years and contracted black lungs disease. He is confined to bed and has no money to buy medicines or feed his family. His two younger brothers and three cousins died in coal mines. Many of his relatives still work as miners.
Abid Yaar, SCMWA President, said two to five men are working as coal miners from each house in Ghorband and Kana tehsils of Shangla. Every house has a patient with black lungs illness, he said.
He said in the past week, four miners died of the deadly disease in his union council Miankaly.
Niaz Badshah’s backbone was damaged in a coalmine at Charat area of Kohat in 2019. He is paralysed. His wife died during delivery last year and his three-year-old son is suffering from kidney disease.
“I am concerned for my child,” Badshah said. “I’m breathing for him now because I have nothing else left.”
With tears in his eyes, he said he could not afford his son’s treatment.
Khan, the PMWF senior vice president, said several miners get crippled permanently in each coalmine incident but neither companies support them nor the government.
Lala Sultan, PMWF President, said the law for safety and welfare of miners exists but it is not implemented.
“Mines declared vulnerable should be closed permanently,” Mr. Sultan said. “If the mine size of 6-by-7, two paths, provision of safety equipment, inspection of mines are ensured, then the mines incidents would decline.”
According to the data collected from various sources of the provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Punjab, around 152,000 workers are currently working as miners in 6,723 mines of the three provinces. Out of these, 49,000 from Balochistan, 63,000 from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and 40,000 from Punjab are currently associated with the risky job.
The number of mines in Balochistan is 2,365; in Punjab, it is 2,413; and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 1,945.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa passed a bill on 27 December 2019 for the safety of workers, ensuring inspection and registration of mines. Sources say that in about 60 percent of the coalmines in merged districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the contractors and mine owners avoid registration of miners.
When incidents take place, a mine crew reaches the site for rescue work but mine crews have nothing to work in subterranean mines.
There are total 14 mine crews for the nearly 2,000 mines in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and they have only five gas detectors, some of which are out of order. Similarly, breathing operators are not available with them. While there are four breathing apparatus, due to lack of refilling of oxygen machine the apparatus lie empty.
Universal testing machine for mines inspections are unavailable. In the absence of the equipment, the mine crews are also risking their own lives and their chances of rescuing workers are slim.
In out of 14 mine crews, nine hail from Shangla and comprise sons of miners. But there is no risk allowance. The number of mine crews against the number of mines is inadequate.
The government collects a specific percentage from both mine owners and labour for their welfare and financial assistance for the future. But according to the families of deceased coal miners, a single penny of those funds have not been received by the families.
Minister for labour welfare and culture, Shaukat Yousafzai, who is also the Member of Provincial Assembly from Shangla, said he made efforts and passed the bill for the miners safety at their workplace and registration of mines where illegal mining happened.
“I have directed the authorities concerned to immediately register all the unregistered mines across the province as soon as possible as well as register miners with the government,” he said.
The minister further explained that incidents take place when coal mines that are illegal and declared unfit are run by contractors without registration. He said a registered worker can enjoy all the facilities and his family as well as widows and orphans will be supported. But registration is a must, he said.
The minister said under the recently enacted law, free treatment, free education, and all the basic facilities will be provided to the miners by the government.
He said there is huge amount that the miners and mine owners pay to the government. It should be utilised for the welfare. It was his mission to spend the funds on the welfare of the miners and their families, he said.
He said mafia behind the coal mines would also be exposed in the registration campaign because about 60 percent of coalmines are unregistered where miners work by putting their lives at risk.
About the mine crews, Mr. Yousafzai said he had a meeting in this regard with Minister for Mines and Minerals who assured him that steps would be taken about it in the future.
Note: A separately edited version of this story was also published by the Dawn Edition on Sunday.
Cover image: Scenes outside coal mine in Balochistan. Asim Khan.