There is no view beyond what the spotlight of a headlamp reveals: the maw of a tunnel that disappears into the bowels of the earth or a wall that abruptly ends the possibilities of vision and movement.
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The limited sight one has inside a mine makes one realise why moles are blind, why cavefish do not have eyes and why miners suffer from nystagmus — an ocular condition caused by living in poorly-lit places for long periods of time. In evolutionary terms, darkness degenerates eyesight. Inside the pit of a mine, however, one may be grateful for a limited vision.
Even if one could see, one would only be looking into a black hole — through the narrow confines of a tunnel that goes on and on without an end in sight. Darkness and the limits of sight allow one to imagine. One could assume there are no walls around, no roof above; as if one is in an otherworldly place. The feelings — fear and shock — that come along with being in a mine can be called only as phobias. As with fear of depths, heights, tight places, the panic it causes can be felt but not described.
Their experience is as surreal — and scary — as of those who go into the space or under the ocean. In Balochistan, there are mines as deep as 7, feet, much deeper than the average depth of Arctic Ocean. No one can survive at those depths without oxygen tanks — except that miners do somehow. This comparison of mines with space and ocean is not an idle thought.
The subterranean is as perilous as the aqueous and the airless. For if one stands vulnerable against hostile forces of nature in sea and space, then in mines there are parallels aplenty. If a disaster strikes within these dark subterranean dungeons, no one can hear coal miners scream. T he centuries will burn rich loads With which we groaned, Whose warmth shall lull their dreaming lids, While songs are crooned; But they will not dream of us poor lads, Left in the ground. The West needed colossal amounts of coal for the Industrial Revolution. Among the nameless multitudes of miners who made it available was Ellison Jack.
An eleven-year-old girl in Britain, she did 20 journeys a shift carrying a tub of coal that weighed kilogrammes. And if she slackened on the job, she got whipped. Her story was a part of the shocking Mines Report the British parliament published in to shed light on the terrible state of coal mining in Britain. It brought to public knowledge how children under five years of age worked underground — for 12 hours and for two pennies a day.
Carrying coal far too heavy than their own bodies caused deformities in them. In Pakistan, we have no miner girls but we do have boys, some as young as 13, who regularly leave homes to work in mines. He lives in Shangla from where hail a large number of colliers working in coal mines scattered across the country. As Pakistan carousels on its great coal ride, the electricity we get from power plants, the homes we build with bricks made in coal-fired kilns and bags of cement we churn out in millions each year — all owe to the sweat and blood of young miners like Pir Mohammad, 13, in Dukki, Balochistan; Abdul Salam, 30, in Shangla, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; or Hameed Jan Haji, 70, in Machh, Balochistan.
Like Ellison Jack, they are the nameless and faceless dynamos of our development. With stories and characters straight out of a bleak Dickensian world, these toilers of the dark, invisible subterranean places live, work and die far from sight, away from the luxuries built and developed on their labour. They grow old in some distant, soot-blackened land at the end of unpaved roads no one but the miners take, their lives often spent living in hovels and holes in the hills.
In the day, they toil in poorly-lit mines, coming out at night to live in settlements without electricity.
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Mining landscapes — because they are remote and far removed from our everyday lives and experiences — challenge the visual quality one commonly associates with reading about a landscape. Because of this inaccessibility — and also because of the cultural ambivalence of remembering a kind of labour that some would prefer to forget — the historical memory of these places is often buried away. Mine shafts become both literally and metaphorically sealed. Coal may be a source of carbon that is choking the planet. In Pakistan, however, it is the new gold. From Thar in Sindh — with reserves of over billion tonnes — to Dukki in Balochistan, it is lightening up lives with the happy prospect of employment and power generation.
As of today, however, little of it is being used for producing electricity. Most of it goes into firing smoke-spewing brick kilns which forced the smog-choked Punjab province — that guzzles most of the coal produced in different parts of Pakistan — to seek their closure in October last year.
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Out of these, 3. Many parts of the globe have fully or partially banned coal mining Meghalaya in India, Wales in the United Kingdom, many regions in Australia, Germany and other European countries. Pakistan is certainly behind the rest of the world as far as its relationship with coal is concerned but now that we have started using it, the industrial prosperity of the developed world could well be our own. The prosperity will not come without a price, they say.
Spin Karez is a vast expanse of land outside Quetta, bleached and baked hard by the harsh sun. It is a haunting terrain where wind howls and dust devils rise out of nowhere to waltz jauntily before disintegrating and disappearing. Low hills, with barely any human habitation or vegetation, swell and surge like ripples in land on both sides of the road that leads to the place. Further ahead, mountain peaks take on anthropomorphic contours: Koh-e-Murdar looks like a sleeping beauty gazing at a cloudless sky.
Along the way to Spin Karez is a coal depot, a land basin with low buildings and heaps of coal out in the open. Mining units are spread over a soot-blackened landscape here, livened up by colourful and bright trucks — some parked, others moving along the road, still others being loaded with coal. All day long, small trucks arrive at the depot from nearby mines to unload coal which is then loaded on to bigger trucks that take it to other parts of the country. On a wintry Friday last year, the road from Spin Karez to Quetta has trucks and pickup vans carrying coal as well as coal miners, their faces covered for protection against wind and dust.
These men, mostly from Swat, are going to Quetta to spend a weekly holiday.
Next week, they will stay back at coal mines and another group will go on leave. In Quetta, they meet friends and family members working in other mining areas in Balochistan. They also send money to families back home through miners going back to Swat. They crowd restaurants on Tughi Road, the focal point for miners from Swat, watching Bollyood films on a satellite television. Contractors, too, frequent these restaurants to recruit coal miners, brandishing advance money as an incentive.
On joining a coal mine, a labourer may make as little as 10, rupees a month or as high as 60, rupees a month — depending on his experience and the physical strength the work requires.
Mining season peaks in winters so the demand for miners increases between October and March every year. In summers, coal production goes down as miners stay in their villages doing farming. While at work, miners stay in the pits from am to pm and return to their dwellings to sharpen pickaxes, wash themselves, cook for themselves and, in some places, feed donkeys they deploy for transporting coal from mining pits to warehouses.
As bent and broken as these men are in body and spirit, the plight of donkeys working alongside them is no better — or no worse. The wind that leaves a mine is damp and thick with choking coal dust. Dukki is a small mining district in Balochistan — kilometres to the east of the provincial capital, Quetta. It has more coal mines than any other part of the province. Leave its eponymous headquarter town and you will see mounds of excavated coal piled on lands along a road that goes to Barkhan and then onwards to Dera Ghazi Khan, farther in the east.
In places, mining seems to be happening right underneath the road or even beneath houses on the sides whose owners get a royalty of , rupees a year. Dukki town can be mistaken easily as an Afghan settlement. For one, members of a Pashtun tribe, Nasar, form a majority of its population and they have close relatives across the border in Afghanistan.
Secondly, a large number of colliers working here are also Afghans. Together the two give the town a peculiarly Afghan ambiance that no other mining area in Pakistan has. By the look of it, the state of Afghan miners is more desperate than of those from Pakistan. They are willing to work in conditions where no one else dares to tread — sometimes working in pits that are as deep as 7, feet.
They also exist in a legal vacuum — without valid documents to stay and work in Pakistan. Pakistani miners can invoke the law of the land when negotiating with mine owners or mine contractors. Afghans, like Abdul Manan — who comes from Kalat province in Afghanistan — are entirely at the mercy of their employers. A miner for 35 years, Manan has not received any of his wages from a mine where he worked the whole of last year. A bearded, turbaned man with a grimy waist jacket and a grey wrinkled face — coal soot deposited like pigment in the folds of its skin — he claims the mine contractor has expelled him rather than paying his wages.