The unaddressed crisis of illegal coal mining owing to callous governance plagues Balochistan amidst lingering political uncertainty
Balochistan is on the boil, encircled with evil signs all around. The coalition government, led by the Balochistan Awami Party with Jam Kamal Khan as the chief minister, faces an existentialist crisis.
The crisis was triggered with a tweet from the BAP senator Kahuda Babar in the very first week of the new year, bluntly suggesting that the CM quit the post as Kamal was facing an intra-party coup. A week thereafter, Balochistan National Party-Mengal president Sardar Akhtar Mengal was seen at the Quetta airport 'confabulating' with Balochistan assembly speaker Quddus Bizenjo, who has been alleged for discreetly toppling the Jam government. However, the move seemed abortive as BAP candidate Manzoor Kakar was through in the by-election for a vacant Senate seat. Kamal scotched the rumour about an internal coup, although BAP remains structurally brittle with bitter factionalism.
The BAP coalition government continues to be shadowed by an opaque uncertainty as the Balochistan legislature has a formidable opposition with 24 MPAs – just nine short of forming a government of BNP-Mengal and Jamiat Ulema Islam-Fazl. The ruling party has 20 members (15 directly elected) in the 64-member but supported by 21 legislators representing Awami National Party and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf inter alia. In the 11-member cabinet are one each from ANP and the PTI – the rest from BAP, including a couple of independent members who joined the ruling party.
The reigning coalition seems inadequately concerned about the elongating 'queues of death' in coal mines, crossing 1,000 during the last 18 years, thanks to the pathetic tradition of callous governance. The latest is at a colliery in Dukki district with three miners having succumbed to collapse due to a gas explosion. Three others remain trapped at the explosion site, awaiting rescue efforts. In the same colliery, four workers had died in a similar accident this month itself. Dukki is rich with high-quality coal and the extraction rate is the highest in the country. Miners are mostly ethnic Pashtuns and collieries are in private hands who trample statutory obligations on miners' safety and health underfoot.
Coal mining in Pakistan – not only Balochistan but Punjab too – has been historically fraught with hazards. There are asphyxiation, gas poisoning, roof collapse, rock burst, gas explosions and a plethora of lung diseases like coal worker's pneumoconiosis, known as black lung disease.
Pakistan Mine Workers Federation staged a protest demonstration in the second week of January in Quetta and squarely blamed the provincial government for apathetic attitude. During the last three years 315 mine workers were killed, and in 2018 alone, 98 coal miners had lost their lives in harness. "Despite the incidents, coal mine workers are compelled to work under an Act established during British rule while the contractor system in coal mine industry should be purged out from Balochistan," said Muhammad Zameen, a top trade union leader in the coal industry, who demanded that allotment of hazardous coal mines be scrapped.
The state of animalisation among Pashtun miners and the lack of political assertiveness among Baloch leaders in fetching legitimate financial allocation from federal authorities aggravate political uncertainty. This was why Balochistan was left out in China-Pakistan Economic Corridor projects.
But none other than the Chief Justice of Pakistan Mian Saqib Nisar lamented that the situation of Balochistan remained deplorable despite being rich in mineral resources. The Baloch are deprived of basic rights, he added. Several years back, former Pak Ambassador to the USA Hussain Haqqani criticised the 'miltablishment' in Islamabad, "The ethnic Baloch areas have greater sympathy for nationalists who would like to see either an independent or autonomous Balochistan. The army tries to suppress them, sometimes with the help of religious extremists".
It is time to evade the federal responsibility of treating the Baloch people on par with the Pakistanis in Punjab and Sindh by accusing Afghanistan and India of the Baloch insurgency against the Pakistani state for several decades - albeit at a low-level.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)
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