Manpower Crunch: Archaic law keeping women away from jobs in underground mines

Tata Steel has signed MOUs with the Jharkhand government to upgrade polytechnics and ITIs.

Written by Priyadarshi Siddhanta | Published: October 14, 2015 1:26 am

Reeling under dipping demand and sliding profits, the domestic mining industry appears to be heading for a manpower crunch which may adversely impact operations in existing mines and opening of fresh ones. While mining as a career is dwindling among aspiring engineers, disallowing women to work in underground mines has further limited the scope of replenishing the workforce.

The Mines Act 1952 bars women from entering underground mines and operating factory machinery. The Act specifies that “no woman shall, notwithstanding anything contained in any other law, be employed in any part of a mine which is below-ground and also in any mine above ground except between the hours 6 am and 7 am.” This law was enacted decades ago to protect poor women from being exposed to professional hazards. But today it is holding back educated women from moving into core leadership positions in mining and heavy engineering, a report by National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) says.

The steel sector, which is combating a manpower crunch, may fail to meet the targeted 300 million tonne (MT) of output by 2025. Firms like SAIL and Rashtriya Ispat Nigam Limited alone would require an additional 43,000 engineers by 2025. Simply put, the number of engineers required would increase from 30,000 in 2013-14 to 73,000 by 2025, but the steel ministry is worried that such numbers may not available.

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There are sufficient engineering colleges in India, with more than 4.5 lakh graduating every year. However, only 50–55 per cent enter the job market due to the lack of skills required by industry, a CII report cites.

Due to the prevalent law, mining training institutes prefer not to admit women into core mining engineering courses. For the same reason, women are not permitted to apply for a first class unrestricted mining certificate, which permits entry into any type of mine. They have to instead contend with obtaining only a restricted certificate, which permits entry into over-ground mines only.

“So, the law seems to have relegated women to ‘second class status’ professionally at a time when we are trying to radically boost manufacturing/mining sector development and bring more skilled women into the workforce,” the think-tank observes in its report. Other countries have done so in the past two decades, as a result of which women are now an integral part of the mining workforce and leadership in Chile, South Africa and Australia. However, this is also because their mining industries are significantly more mechanised than in India. This is one area where semi-literate rural women could be extensively employed with focused training, a senior government official told The Indian Express.

The NCAER has suggested that industry should find ways to investigate how more women might be brought into the country’s male-dominated mining sector and moved up the value chain. Since there is a need for a substantial number of semi-skilled workers, many women from the countryside can be imparted focussed skilling and trained to be electricians, bricklayers, plumbers, etc.

“I am not against allowing women mining engineers to work in the mines. But given the restriction on their deployment in both underground and open cast mines, they (women) do not find mining as an attractive career,” retired chairman of NMDC, Rana Som told The Indian Express.

However, if women are taught to drive (as Rio Tinto and Tata Steel have been doing), it is easy to upskill them into becoming bulldozer and excavator operators in open cast mines. JCB India and Jindal Stainless have been hiring and training rural and semi-urban women welders, furnace operators, etc. With the auction of over two dozen coal blocks and over 50 non-coal mines on the anvil, the need for mining and metallurgical engineers is bound to go up. Steel utilities and coal-fired power plants having backward integration in the form of captive mines would also require substantial engineers to ensure round-the-clock production from their mines.

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