For the past one week,nearly 500 workers have been on an indefinite fast inside the Moghla coal mine in Jammu and Kashmir demanding an increase in wages. Four have already ended up in hospital following deterioration in their health due to the hours spent 500 metres below the surface in increasingly unsafe conditions.
To be entitled to an average pay of Rs 2,550-3,330 per month along with COLA (cost of living allowance,around Rs 4,500 per month),a worker here has to extract a minimum of 400 kg of coal per day. For the past two months,they havent got their wages. The January salary came in on February 22.
An urgent meeting by Jammu and Kashmir Minerals Ltd (JKML) Board of Directors,chaired by Industries Minister S S Slathia,on Monday evening promised to fulfil the workers demand of a wage hike as per the Sixth Pay Commission. However,Bharatiya Coal Khan Mazdoor Sangathan working president Rajesh Gupta says the workers would end their protest only after formal orders are issued.
The JKML is looking at a loss of at least Rs 1 crore a month if the strike drags on as extraction of coal (nearly 2,000 tonnes a month) has come to a halt in all the five mines in Kalakote area.
Poor,irregular wages are just one part of the problem,say workers. Those who retire have to struggle to get their provident fund dues and pension. While JKML deducts a sum from the wages as contribution towards provident fund,it has not been depositing either this money or its own share since 1992 in the fund. The workers claim that a large number of colleagues who have retired since 2009,including those who opted for voluntary retirement,have neither got provident fund nor pension so far.
Many like Mohd Akbar have been forced to continue working post-retirement to make ends meet. He retired as mine sardar in 2007 after turning 58,the retirement age. However,unable to pay him either gratuity or provident fund,JKML last year offered him re-employment in the same post. Tara Chand Khajuria has similarly been re-employed following his retirement as mine sardar in 2009. Last year,he sought his gratuity money as his son was getting married. JKML sent him a cheque for Rs 20,000.
Among the worst sufferers are the casual workers,who get Rs 110 per day besides Rs 250 a month as underground allowance provided they work for a minimum of four hours in a month inside the mine. A number of them have been working for the last 14 years,but,in order to avoid regularising them,JKML gives them a days break every 89 days and hires them again (working 90 days at a stretch entitles them to regularisation). In its bid to end the strike on Monday,the board promised to allow casual workers to continue working beyond 89 days.
The regional commissioner of the Coal Mines Provident Fund Organisation,Narhari Dass,says he has written a number of letters to JKML over its contribution not coming in,to no avail. He puts the money owed by JKML towards provident fund and pension at Rs 53.32 crore as of March 2011. According to him,JKML is the only government subsidiary in the country to have defaulted in payment of dues of its own coal mine workers.
JKML managing director V C Sharma blames the workers plight on militancy,saying that the government entity had collective losses of Rs 400 crore due to non-extraction of coal from mines since 1996. He calls the miners protest uncalled for and claims February and March salaries were withheld due to the protests.
JKMLs word,however,doesnt have much traction with the workers as the deadline to meet their demands has been extended by the authorities more than once. The last such promise was after the workers union served a 72-hour notice on March 5. They were told that the minister would make an announcement regarding their demands in the Assembly on March 22. When that didnt happen,miners stopped extraction of coal on March 23.
Four days later,nearly 500 from the Kalakote mines went inside the Moghla mine and began the indefinite fast. Except for the four hospitalised,none has emerged since even once.