Hyderabad: The underground mining operations in Telangana’s Singareni area came to a grinding halt from April 1, albeit in a belated move, to protect miners against the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Singareni Collieries Company Limited (SCCL) issued an official press release signed by the director (PA&W), declaring layoff for underground mines and “stoppage of manual underground face working, manual drilling and support work” as a precautionary measure to contain the spread of the coronavirus. The orders came into force from the second shift of April 1 to third shift of April 14, or until the nationwide lockdown is lifted. The release said the lay-off wages for the UG miners will be paid later.
On March 30, The Wire had published an article exposing the vulnerable work environment in which nearly 50,000 miners have been engaged in coal fields in Telangana. On the day of the article’s publication, the director general of mines safety (officiating) and chief inspector of mines issued a circular, directing the director to declare lay-off for underground mines and suspend the mining operations.
The Telangana state government went into overdrive, effectively enforcing the lockdown in the wake of a spurt in positive cases. As of Thursday morning, the state has 129 confirmed cases, while nine people have died because of the viral infection. More than 1,000 people from different parts of Telangana attended a religious gathering in Delhi’s Nizamuddin area, where some contracted the infection.
The SCCL, however, exempted some mines, including open cast projects (OCP), from its orders with regard to suspension of UG operations. The SCCL is presently operating 19 open cast and 30 underground mines in four districts of Telangana.
Social distancing, a basic precaution to prevent the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, is not feasible in the case of miners drafted for underground coalmine operations. Citing this practical problem, SCCL employee unions launched a protest, demanding the state-run coal mine operator suspend its underground operations as a precautionary measure. Miriyala Raji Reddy, a union leader, said around 2,000 miners are engaged in the underground operations.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had called for a janata curfew on March 22, followed by a nation-wide lockdown that came into force from March 25. But the SCCL continued to operate even during the lockdown, in spite of appeals from the unions and criticism from several quarters. It was alleged that the miners, many of whom were fearful of the threat posed by the virus, were forced to continue working in vulnerable conditions, without basic safety measures like masks and sanitizers.
Like most industrial activity, the threat of the contagious disease has cast a shadow over coal production in the Singareni area. According to reports, the past few weeks saw a sharp increase in the number of workers abstaining from mining work. The fall in attendance, sometimes by up to 50%, is expected to bring the coal production down to 1.3 lakh million tonnes in contrast to the normal range of 2-2.3 lakh tonnes per month.
SCCL extracts 67 million tonnes of coal from mines every year, which is supplied to power generation plants in Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Maharastra. The Singareni coal reserves stretch across 350 km of Pranahitha and Godavari valleys of Telangana, with geological reserves aggregating to 8,791 million tons, according to SCCL’s official website.