Three months ago, workers at the Eastern Coalfields’ Lalmatia site in Jharkhand noticed large fissures on the surface of material excavated from the open cast mine. Their supervisors tried to report these several times to site managers, they said, but they were ignored.

“Lallu Khan, our site in-charge, complained to the management four to five times the previous month that the earth was cracking, it was unsafe to work there,” said Jamil Akhtar, who has been working as a supervisor since 2014. “But Pramod Kumar, the mine manager, Eastern Coalfields, made him restart work each time he tried to halt operations.”

On December 29, workers on the afternoon shift were conducting operations on top of the 150-metre high pile of excavated earth – higher than a 30-storey building. A little after 7 pm, the ground slid 35 metres, taking the workers and their machines with it. Lallu Khan and the other 22 workers were crushed to death by boulders and massive mounds of debris.

This is the highest number of deaths recorded in an accident in an open cast mine in India. The next day, the Union Ministry of Mines issued a statement calling the accident “unprecedented”.

FIR is filed

When asked why warnings by workers were not heeded, or why the management failed to ensure workers’ safety, Sanjay Kumar Singh, general manager in charge of Lalmatia mine for Eastern Coalfields, would not comment because of a family emergency. DK Nayak, general manager (operations), Eastern Coalfields, declined to comment too, saying that he had been on leave for the past two months. Mine manager Pramod Kumar, whom the workers named, also declined to comment.

A First Information Report was registered by the Godda district police on December 30 to begin an investigation against officials of Mahalaxmi Infra Contract Private Limited – the contractor that was carrying out mining work in Lalmatia mine on behalf of Eastern Coalfields Limited – and the mining manager of Eastern Coalfields. But the police have not detained or questioned any one so far.

Within three days of the accident, 18 bodies and all machinery – 12 large dumpers, five loaders and one bulldozer – were recovered from the accident site. But five bodies continue to remain buried under the debris. Rescue operations were suspended on January 4 “because of technical reasons”.

The Eastern Coalfields rescue team stopped work after it had found that wide cracks had appeared on the surface of the pile of excavated material, indicating the possibility of further landslides.

Lalmatia coal mine workers who had been hired by the mining contractor Mahalaxmi. (Photo credit: Anumeha Yadav).

Warning ignored

The workers first noticed the earth was beginning to come loose and fall in small chunks after Dusshera in mid-October, they said. This was an indication that the “overburden”, the technical name for the pile of excavated material, was unstable.

A week prior to the accident, night shift work excavating inside the pit of the mine had been discontinued because small landslides were occurring at regular intervals. But the work of arranging the earth into bench-like formations going on at the top of the heap of excavated material continued.

On December 29, blasting was carried out in the afternoon, after which a deep crack appeared on the surface of the overburden dump. At 4 pm, Lallu Khan stopped work. A migrant in his mid-30s from Madhya Pradesh’s Sidhi district, Khan did not attend school but had worked in various mines since the last 12 years. He had worked as a supervisor at the site for three years.

“After the crack appeared on the overburden that same afternoon, 14 workers operating two excavator machines and 12 dumpers were shifted out of the deep mine pit,” said Lallu Khan’s nephew, Idris Khan, an excavator operator with Mahalaxmi. “Lallu asked the afternoon shift working above, on the overburden dump, to also stop work.”

At 5.30 pm, the Eastern Coalfields mine manager, Pramod Kumar, reached the site and asked Lallu Khan to resume work on the overburden, recounted his nephew.

Around 7 pm, less than two hours after work had been restarted, the earth folded and large boulders and debris fell with enormous force.

“The men and machines were standing on top of the bench, which was tearing away,” said Idris Khan. “They had no chance to run. The earth enveloped the men and machines.”

Over the next three days, workers extricated the severely mangled bodies of their colleagues – two bodies ripped in the middle, one with head torn out – from the debris.

Most of the bodies found were of those who had been driving the dumpers and excavators. But Lallu Khan’s body has still not been found. He had been standing on the earth, and his body may have got buried deeper and crushed more severely, without the protective covering of a metal machine over him, say the workers.

The bodies of Madhu Patel, a 36-year-old worker from Kutch in Gujarat; Gagan Singh, a 24-year-old worker from Bhagalpur in Bihar; Bhim Rao, a 30-year-old worker from Kaimur, Bihar, and Parvez Alam, a 28-year old worker from Ramgarh district of Jharkhand have still not been recovered.

Gaffar Sattar's son Lallu Khan was the site in charge and had complained many times to authorities that the mine was unsafe. Two weeks after the accident, Lallu Khan’s body, and that of four other workers, had still not been found. (Photo credit: Anumeha Yadav).

Life at the mine is hard. Drivers and operators work in eight-hour shifts starting at 5 am, 1 pm, and 9 pm, doing a double-shift of 16 hours once a week. The shifts of the helpers, mechanics, and supervisors change every 12 hours.

Operators and drivers hired via the mining contractor work without weekly offs and earn Rs 8,000 to Rs 9,000 per month, much lower than the salary Eastern Coalfields pays workers it hires directly.

The mine workers hired on contract live in their one-room tenements, each of which is shared by six to seven workers. Most had migrated from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to look for work in the mines in Jharkhand.

The men who died were their colleagues, and for some, family members.

Maqsood Ansari, a driver with Mahalaxmi, had got both his younger brothers jobs in the Lalmatia mine. His youngest brother Javed Ansari was killed in the accident. Rajan Yadav, from Balia in Uttar Pradesh, had worked on the morning shift that day. His son-in-law, 24-year-old Brajesh Yadav, who worked on the next shift, was also killed.

Criminal negligence

A day after the accident, the Directorate General Mines Safety, a Ministry of Labour and Employment agency responsible for monitoring the safety of mine workers in India, appointed a five-member enquiry team. Coal India Limited, a public sector company of which Eastern Coalfields is a subsidiary, also set up an investigation team.

On January 13, responding to a Public Interest Litigation in the Jharkhand High Court on the accident, the Directorate General Mines Safety accused Eastern Coalfields of criminal negligence. The agency said that the site was not fit for mining, and Eastern Coalfields did not follow safety norms.

“The existing cracks show the overburden dump and the strata were giving a warning since long, but Eastern Coalfields Limited officials were still trying to extract coal,” Rahul Guha, a mining engineer and director general of the Directorate General Mines Safety, told this reporter at his Dhanbad office.

Utpal Saha, deputy director general (eastern zone) of the Directorate General Mines Safety, who is heading the enquiry team, is expected to submit a report in 10 days.

Saha, who is in charge of ensuring the safety of mine workers in nearly 580 coal and non-coal mines in four regions across West Bengal and the seven North East states, had led an inspection to the Lalmatia mine in August 2016.

“I believe ECL [Eastern Coalfields Limited] officials may have misled us during the last inspection by taking us only to a safe area,” he said.

In 2015, there were 68 deaths recorded in 569 coal mines in India, one nearly every five days. Of these, 24 were below ground, 30 were in open-cast mines, 14 above ground.

With the Lalmatia accident, the number of deaths in 2016 will be 88, the highest ever in six years. Besides this, in 2015, there were 122 serious mining accidents, one every three days.

Despite this, officials from the Directorate General Mines Safety say they are under pressure from the Union government to carry out only “randomised inspections”.

“In such a system, a high-risk mine may get low priority of inspection,” said M Tikadhar, director, mine safety, Directorate General Mines Safety. “It has taken us two years to convince labour ministry officials in Delhi that a randomised inspections system, which reduces the inspector’s decision making, will not work in mines that have very dynamic operations.”

But with each zonal head responsible for hundreds of coal and non-coal mines spread across states, more than inspections, mine safety officials say everyday safety will greatly benefit if mining operators prepared and followed safety management plans, which is not a statutory requirement right now.

“We have the power to issue guidelines to mining companies to make safety management plans, but ultimately, the mining company has to own the safety plan,” said a senior official of the Directorate General Mines Safety. “A few years back, when we insisted that each coal mine have a safety management plan, Coal India Limited hired a few retired officials as consultants who prepared the same safety plans for multiple mines, in some instances simply copy pasting, without even changing the name of the mines.”

Production goes on

Coal India Limited is the world’s largest coal miners, and Eastern Coalfields is one of its eight subsidiaries.

Lalmatia, Eastern Coalfields’ largest and deepest open cast mine, produced 17 million tonnes of coal in 2016, half of the company’s annual production.

Despite this, production in Eastern Coalfields was on “auto mode”, noted Shubhomoy Bhattacharjee in the Business Standard earlier this month. The company has not had a chairman since 2015, and it did not have a director (technical) for a long time after October 2015, the report pointed out.

Following the accident, coal supply to National Thermal Power Corporation’s 2,340-megawatt power plant at Kahalgaon in Bihar, and another plant at Farakka in West Bengal, was disrupted. Even before all bodied were recovered, mining operations at Lalmatia fully resumed on January 12.

The compensation announced by Eastern Coalfields Limited and mining contractor Mahalaxmi is yet to reach the victims’ families, said the workers.

Mine workers shoes outside their one-room tenements in Lalmatia. (Photo credit: Anumeha Yadav).