Saturday, August 31, 2013



‘Be careful’ is the last advice from Mervyn  my son over the mobile,when I was about to enter the coal mine.

Wearing the Wellington shoes made with wooden protection for the feet, helmet and the miners lamp with battery life of 8 hours looked like a hype . It looked like the props where you dress up to act for a stage play!

Wellingtons compared to regular size shoes

Then a walk up to the pit where there are large construction metal girders. The steel girders , near an old lift with large metal wagons on rails forcibly bring to the reality that this was no play! An old carriage like structure with rugged metal walls….. and six of us were packed in with a safety officer with the instruction, never put out your hands, keep lamps on all the time and stick together. The security officer pats you for mobiles, cameras and verifies your lights are on medium or full beam and you are  ready to go.

     Helmet, Miners lights

The lift  takes a long time to go down all the 500 metres ( there is still 450 metres down where the real miners are working). The surface lights initially dim and then everything becomes black and silent ...except the rackety noise of the lift. You can hear the water seeping down the sides, but cannot see it. There are some gaps which you can sense by the noise of the lift on the sides where different levels of coal have been removed. For once, you hope that the lift will not get stuck… there is no red button to summon for help!

                    Dhada and the coal wagon!

At last we reach the acceptable level  for the visitors…500metres. Workers who actually work go down to  950 to 1000 metres below. At the bottom, a lone guard, rings a bell and checks all your safety equipment. ..The tour begins.

There are pictures of gods of all faiths painted on the walls.A fish tank with gold fish, a small man - made pond with eel and some other fish are displayed by the side. There are built areas with tiled walls deceptively looking normal. As you make your way through them, you are aware of a nice draught reaching you . It is apparently blown down by huge fans down the shaft to supply fresh air with several exhaust fans below sucking out the air from below (very similar to the laminar flow we deploy in high tech operation theatres).This keeps the mine free of high temperatures, keeps the air cool and keeps the toxic gases low.

Battery operated locomotive ( not a steam engine with coal!) takes you on rails with 4 coaches through the coal black darkness. One realizes for the first time the importance of the miner’s lights. It will be only beacon to show you where you are in case you are lost!Naturally you cannot move an inch if  your light is off!

As the train chugs along, the walls are covered with layers of coal  alternating with rock.These have formed over millions of years due to the intense heat produced with organic and inorganic matter forming hydrocarbons and thus black coal. The rocky hard areas have iron rods measuring 1.5 metres with screws inserted into them on top and sides to prevent caving in. The areas of coal do not have them. Coal walls to touch are shiny and they crumble. The coal here is 99.9% pure and is used in steel industries to make the steel less brittle.Walls are protected with all sorts of other  padding as well. But the sheer knowledge of 500 metres of land over and above it makes your heart flutter.

Final Coal Product in its purity & beauty!

By the side of the rails, there is a steam of running water and this is the only noise you hear in the dark tunnel. I have never seen so many tunnels criss crossing such as this. At one point having got off the train to walk, there was an explosive noise by the side… and suddenly a geyser of water and steam appeared. Such is the pressure of water, and gasses that this  happens often. A motor immediately kicked in automatically and the water was sucked by the pumps. The excess water suddenly filled up the small stream which now ran upto the brim! These safety features are the ones which prevent the mine from flooding.

This makes one realize that though everything looks safe, all of a sudden nature can unfurl its fury at the humans.The realization dawns on you that you are 500 metres down ( some workers even 650 meters below us!) the ground level. In other words, we are at the bottom of a deep well and the water is constantly pumped out at the rate of 180,00,000 gallons of water per day. If this were to theoretically fail, then the mine is flooded!

There were at least 2 first aid stations at our level; there are totally 12 levels!
There were facilities for enriched oxygen inhalation flasks which can be ripped only in the case of emergency fire. Fire with coal sucks out the oxygen and also produces the killer carbon monoxide gas. In such an emergency, the oxygen from these flasks can keep men alive till help arrives to put out the fire. There are fire services to put out normal fire, electrical fire as well as oil fire. There are many electrical machines down – each working automatically without need for any human help.

Moonidhi coal mine of BCCL in Dhabad is the largest coal mine in the world. It produces 500 tons of coal everyday and it can make 3000 tons of coal daily. The coal mining is done at a much lower level and coal is transported rapidly by conveyer belt up. Coal is collected in storages which are transported to the surface in special lifts of 10 tons  at a time .The coal is very pure ( and soft) and hence used only in steel production.

I had read ‘Citadel’ the book by A J Cronin on the mining communities of South Wales coal mines- ranging over three generations as early as in 1937. Andrew Manson newly qualified doctor, arrives from Scotland to work as assistant to Doctor Page in the small Welsh mining town of Blaenelly. He realizes that Page is an invalid and that he has to do all the work for a meagre wage. Shocked by the unsanitary conditions he finds, he works to improve matters and receives the support of Dr Philip Denny, a cynical semi-alcoholic. And the story describes how the situation of the poor miner improves.

I could well imagine how the old miners used to work with lanterns, spades and poisonous gases ( carbon monoxide) with their own fears of sudden noises, buried under the caving in and the flooding of water .  But for their sacrifice and selfless service, one could not imagine such a successful mining industry.

The positives of the life below were quiet, peaceful, breezy atmosphere without any noise, pollution, dust, plastics or even mosquitoes! On other hand, the  dangers of water floods, poisonous gases, long hours in the dark, maybe areas of increased heat, caving in of the mine,explosions, fire hazard and constant exposure to coal dust were real.

After an hour of walking around and exit via the same lift, one cannot but wonder at the marvel of nature, in all its glory, richness, history, uncontrolled fury and power to protect us or destroy us. One also wonders at the selfishness of man as one steps out onto the roads filled with traffic fumes, noisy horns, spitting, plastics, rubbish everywhere…

Where is the smile gone now,eh? 1 hour down the shaft.. relieved to be back on surface!!

If only we can keep this earth anywhere half as beautiful and uncorrupted on its surface as it is 500 metres below, we would have given humanity and all our children the greatest of gifts of life!

Many undertake pilgrimages to hills and other countries; a pilgrimage trip to meet mother earth down by half kilometer immensely increases your faith in nature and a superhuman presence!

To the BCCL staff and doctors who arranged a special trip for us down the mines.
Mrs and Dr Satish Midha for enabling this trip to materialize
Special mention to Dr Agarwal the gynecologist and who gave us so much information on the mines and the wonderful medical work which BCCL is doing.
Dr Sayandev Dasgupta for the transport.

With Dr Dasgupta

             With Staff of BCCL,Mrs Drs Midha, Dasgupta,Ramesh, John &Garg