Josu Mahtai, 58, was at a gathering at the Shaheed Smarak in Dhanbad’s Chasnala mine last month, mourning for her husband among the 375 who died when the mine was flooded on December 27, 1975. Josu, who got a job in her husband’s place, has since built herself a home, has married off her daughter and is looking ahead to retirement. She is one of the few who retain first-hand memories of the country’s worst coal mining disaster.
Forty years later, many from Josu’s generation have retired. Some families have gone back to their homes, the children of some are settled in other cities, and the few victims’ children still here, who have been handed over the jobs initially given to their mothers, were too young in 1975 to remember now.
“If you ask anybody, he will repeat what has been heard many times,” said Ram Swarup Singh. “Of the people who went through the tragedy, very few remain. The Shaheed Smarak is painted ahead of December 27 each year, families and officials pay tribute. After that, it is business as usual.”
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The memorial, initially near the entrance to the mine, was shifted to a park in 1997 and renovated in 2008. “We use our own pipes to water the grass. There is not one light in the park,” said Shah Alam Khan, one in a group of boys playing cricket in the park.
“We hold a commemorative event every December 27. As far as I know, there are no outstanding issues regarding compensation. That’s about it,” said the mine’s general manager, N Siva Prasad.
The mine was owned by IISCO, which later merged into SAIL.
The day of the tragedy, an explosion was carried out to create a ventilator in the mine near an abandoned, waterlogged quarry. An estimated 30 to 40 million gallons flowed in.
Taking a break from work at the washery, Josu recounted how she had to wait three months for the body of her husband, Subhash, who was in his early twenties.
“But there was no body, only the skeleton. The belt and battery lamp number were all that was left,” she said. This was how a large number of the dead were identified.
That afternoon, Josu was cooking when she heard an explosion. “I saw people rushing to the chanak (the entrance from where the lift took miners inside). They were shouting, ‘The mine is flooded’.” Day after day, Josu and her father-in-law waited at the entrance for news. This was where many women, one by one, were told their husbands were dead.
“Hundreds of bodies were inside but they didn’t have the means to remove the water,” said Ram Lal Raut, then a teenager, now due to retire from the job he got as compensation for the death of his father Shiv Lakhan Raut, a trammer. “Pumps were brought in from Russia and Poland, those took a week. It took almost a month to dry the mines.”
Raut added that the then DC of Dhanbad K V Saxena tried his best to provide immediate help to the victims’ families — an initial payment of Rs 5,000, then another Rs 11,000, and finally a third payment. “In all, we got something like Rs 25,000. Then, we were given jobs,” said Raut, who has got three sisters married, supported three brothers, and raised three children of his own.
For the women, the job that came brought its own challenges. “My job meant hauling coal with a shovel. My legs would get swollen,” said Binoti Mahatia, also nearing retirement. Her husband, Jogu Mahato, was 20 when he died. Shivani Devi, 56, said they once got Rs 100 for a month. “Sometimes, someone higher up would appropriate the money in my name,” she said.
Manoj Singh, whose elder brother B N Singh got the compensatory job, said no political leader visited them. The tragedy happened during the Emergency.
A Hindi film, Kaala Patthar with Amitabh Bachchan, was based loosely on the incident. It brought Chasnala into public focus but the shoot took place at other mines and in Bombay. “Maybe they did their research here and went. We never saw them,” Raut said.
Then and now
The mine is a lot more secure now, the management said. “Then, technology was not in place. Now, it has increased manifold,” Prasad said. “Also, SAIL has made safety a top priority. A GM-level officer is now the agent in all its collieries. There is much more accountability for every officer now.”
A court of inquiry by the Directorate General of Mines Safety had been ordered but no current official could recall if anyone was held culpable. The police had registered a case of negligence. By the time a chief judicial magistrate’s court in 2012 convicted two officials of the then IISCO mines — R Bhattacharya and D Sarkar — and sentenced them to a year in jail, both were dead, according to a PTI report following the sentencing.
“The only change over the years has been that focus has shifted from underground mines to open-cast mining,” said B K Singh, joint secretary of Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh in Chasnala. “Although Chasnala is still underground, most of the mining in SAIL-IISCO mines and even in BCCL (Bharat Coking Coal Limited) mines in Dhanbad is now open cast. Open-cast mines have a better safety record.”
In September 1995, a BCCL mine in Gaslitand, Dhanbad, was inundated when the river Katri breached its embankment. It killed 65 labourers and technical personnel.
In February 2001, a mine in Bagdigi, also in Dhanbad, got inundated killing 31 including the mines manager. As in Chasnala, an explosion had caused a hole through which entered water from an abandoned, waterlogged quarry. Once again. pumps had to be brought from outside.
At the Chasnala mine, a board at the mechanised entrance carries a message in Hindi. Roughly translated, it reminds personnel to ensure security at the mines, “so that families do not get destroyed, and those going inside the mines return home smiling”.