Lessons from mines

Accident rate in coal mines shows that the inefficiencies that hit production undermine safety

Written by The Indian Express | Published: July 24, 2012 12:48:43 am

Accident rate in coal mines shows that the inefficiencies that hit production undermine safety

The rate of accidents per 1,000 coal miners began improving since the nationalisation of coal mines in the 1970s,but statistics show that the pace of improvement plateaued by 2003-04. As a report in this paper showed,in 2008-11 there were 399 accidents that led to 322 deaths and 55 workers being injured in mines operated by state-owned Coal India Ltd,Neyveli Lignite Corporation and Singareni Collieries. The major causes for the high rate of accidents in coal mines include roof and side falls in underground mine; mishaps during surface transport by dumpers,trucks and other heavy earth-moving machinery in opencast mines; and leaks of gases like methane.

But the underlying reasons were two-fold — the easy improvements that were possible had already been exhausted by then and the technological solutions that were now needed to make coal mining safer demanded more money. The period of stagnation in improvement in mine safety also coincided with what observers have described as the period of lull in the modernisation of the technology of public sector-led coal extraction in India. Yet,in the same period,Coal India has built up a cash reserve of over Rs 45,000 crore. But CIL didn’t bother to invest the money in bringing in new technology. Essentially,the tapering off of the improvement in mine-safety processes and procedures is due to a combination of the same factors that typically make government-run companies inefficient. The levels of red tape stymie decision-making,relegating even a straightforward imperative like worker welfare. The fact that at the same time as accidents were increasing,Coal India and its subsidiaries were ineffectual in raising production to meet the growing demand from the power sector,is no coincidence.

Countries like the US and Australia have better safety records for coal mines than India in the same period. Australia,incidentally,is a global leader in this respect even though more of its mining is underground while a good percentage of the work in India is open-cast. In 2010,Coal India had sent a team to learn from some of these experiences but,by all accounts,the results are yet to show. In the context of the current denationalisation debate on coal,however,this much is clear: an improvement of the safety record is inextricable from and coterminus with the rise in productivity.

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