Kins watching the rescue operation being done by NDRF in the stone quarry. PC Saurabh Sharma
Obra (Sonbhadra): It was a sunny day with chilly winds blowing, as hundreds of people looked down the about 110-metre-deep stone mine. But, what they saw was not gold, but dead bodies being extracted in the Billi Markundi area of Sonbhadra district, about 35 kilometers from the district headquarters.
The Billi Markundi mining area, which has a lot of quarries, saw a major tragedy on February 28, when about 10 labourers working in the stone mine of Suresh Keshri were stuck under a pile of debris from another quarry. The official death toll, as per the district administration, was five, but three families are yet to get dead bodies of their dear ones.
Since over 24 hours, Phoolmati, resident of a neighbouring village, has been sitting and praying for the well-being of her son Shiv Charan who is believed to be stuck under a big piece of rock.
Phoolmati, who is fast losing hope, says: “I know the chances of my son coming out alive are very dim. All I know is that I have seen two dead bodies and my son was not among those.”
“I will not go from here until they (National Disaster Response Force sleuths) find my son or his dead body. I have prepared myself to hear that my son is no more. I will move from here only with him,” the grieving mother tells Newsclick.
Phoolmati says her son had been working in this quarry since the past two months and was demanding a raise of Rs 10 for his work from the lease holder. “My son was about to leave the work of a tiller in this quarry. He often discussed with his wife about going to the town area and finding some labour work or even selling cane juice. His wife told me that he saved some Rs 300 to buy a fruit extracting machine. He was working here at Rs 50 per hour and worked for more than 10 hours a day, but was also afraid of the risk involved in this work,” she says.
In the wee hours of March 1, the NDRF personnel fished out two badly dismembered bodies, which were difficult to identify. Phoolmati refused to accept that her son was one of these. However, Shiv Charan’s corpse was identified through his clothes by his co-workers in the quarry.
The state government announced a solatium of Rs 5 lakh to the kin of Shiv Charan and five others. It is yet to be ascertained whether these miners were insured or not by the lease holder.
Shiv Shankar, 38, a miner who was lucky to survive the tragedy, says there has been labour law violation at every step, adding that no safety precautions were taken by the lease holder of the mine.
“In the name of safety, we workers are only provided helmets, not even safety shoes. The step by step cutting of rocks, as per the guidelines of the government, is a thing of the past. Now, we labourers are asked to drill the earth till we find water. This tragedy could have been easily averted if the mine from which the rocks fell had fencing around it,” he alleges.
On being asked about the steps taken by the quarry lease holder, Shankar alleges that the mining department is in a hand-in-glove with quarry lease holders as no inspection is ever done by the local labour department.
K K Rai, a former mining officer who made news with claims of gold reserves in the district, when asked about it first, said he was asked by his district magistrate to not speak to the media, but later agreed to take some questions.
“There are 40 lease holders who are extracting stones from different quarries in the district. The leases were given to them before my appointment in the district. The department has been taking strict action against the violations,” Rai said, adding, “The incident was unfortunate but that does not account for any dereliction by the mining department, as it was a God’s will.”
Dinkar Kapoor, a social activist working for the welfare of miners in Sonbhadra since the past one and a half decades, says every year two to three such incidents happen but the mining department has not taken any lessons from these.
“The first major violation that is happening in this energy capital of India is that mines are being operated within 500 meters of residential areas. The residential areas feel the tremors whenever blasting is done in any mine. The situation is so bad that the local ITI College is left with no roofs and many children have hearing issues, he says.
Kapoor says the second issue is that there are no trained blasters and rock blasting is done by ordinary labour, which increases the risk while breaching. The guidelines of every concerned department involved in mining are being violated. This has become a custom by the lease holders, as they give a hefty share to the officials,” the social activist alleges.
In the backdrop of this mine tragedy in Sonbhadra, it may be highlighted that 240 people died in coal mine accidents in the country between 2013 to 2016 while the death toll for the same period of time in different non-coal mines stands as 202, as per a question asked in Parliament.