The Indian government has called for a nationwide safety survey for the country’s coal mines after the deaths of 17 miners in the Rajmahal Open Cast Expansion Project in Jharkhand. Such audits are a standard political response to any major industrial or mining disaster. The real test will be whether anything constructive about coal mining safety will emerge. Similar surveys have not changed the fact that coal mining remains one of the most dangerous professions in the country.
India’s statistics indicate coal mining has become safer over the past few decades. Between 1990 and 2015, the average number of serious injuries per metric tonne of coal mined has fallen from 2.7 to 0.27. The average number of fatalities has also fallen from 0.69 to 0.07. But much of this is because of the greater mechanisation of mining which massively increases output per miner. If calculated in terms of 300,000 man-shifts, the fatality rate has only halved from 0.3 to 0.15 during that same time.
Government officials like to point out that India’s coal mining fatality figures are better than those of the US. But the numbers are not wholly comparable. Most of India’s mining is of the reasonably safe open-cast variety while much of the mining in the US is deep underground and much more dangerous. India’s safety record in underground mining is extremely poor. There are also questions about the validity of Indian numbers given the large number of illegal wildcat mines where accidents, let alone fatalities, never make it to the official statistics.
India’s coal industry has some obvious lacunae. It has among the highest rates of fatalities and injuries from the collapse of roofs and walls in the world. Inundation fatalities have also seen an increase in the past few decades. India also has unusually high incidents of accidents caused by the surface movement of heavy machinery – strictly speaking not even a consequence of actual mining activity but a clear sign of administrative failings.
A number of bodies, ranging from the National Human Rights Committee (NHRC) to various parliamentary panels, have recommended that coal sector look more closely at the international practices of other nations. China, for example, has registered some of the biggest gains in mine safety in recent times.
Australia has the best safety record of any country. The fundamental reason that Coal India and others baulk at such benchmarks, however, is that all this requires capital expenditure. This, in turn, requires a genuine corporatisation and streamlining of these inefficient public sector units. That sort of reform remains outside the pale, ensuring that both increases in capital expenditure and mining safety remain vestigial concerns.