The morning air is dry, dark gray clouds are overcast and children are playing barefoot outside their mud and brick houses. Doki is a mineral-rich district and is located in the southwestern province of Balochistan, Pakistan. Doki has located about 230 km from the provincial capital Quetta. Despite the serious health risks posed by dust emissions from coal mining, families from remote areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and neighbouring Afghanistan continue to live in the coal fields. They consider it as their home.
“My family is breathing coal dust and black smoke, but I have no choice but to live in this coalfield. “A large number of local children come to the hospital suffering from lung diseases,” said Atta Muhammad, one of the hundreds of coal workers living a modest life with his family on the outskirts of Dukke. He is a father of seven and
four of his children are suffering from chest infections and he often visits the local hospital for treatment.
Called “black gold” by locals, the coal is used in factories, brick kilns and the energy sectors in the Pakistani provinces of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The collateral damage of this way of earning is that the children of these colliers are miserable, and the air they breathe is toxic. The prevalence of asthma and other respiratory symptoms in children living near the opencast coal mining sites is high. According to local health practitioners, children are suffering from breathing problems and chest infections due to inhaled coal dust.
About 50% of Pakistan’s coal is produced in mineral-rich Balochistan, and coal mining is a source of revenue for the province. Amber Khan Yousafzai, the provincial vice-president of the National Labour Federation trade union, says 15,000 to 20,000 labourers work in the Duki and Chamalang coal mines, many of which are unregulated, and about 5,000 to 6,000 families live near the hundreds of mines. The Chamalang mines are some of the largest in the region.
Sixty-year-old Abdul Rahman worked in the coal industry for 26 years but was unable to dig deep mines after suffering from asthma. He found an alternative career and now sells shoes and slippers in a flea market. “I am a father of eight children. My two children have respiratory diseases, one of them is five years old and the other is nine years old. I have to rely on basic treatment from local doctors. All my children
“Only one child goes to school,” he said, using a blue inhaler.
Noor Bibi, a mother of three from the Doki district, has had a similar experience. Her husband has worked in the mining industry for 13 years but is no longer able to work. She has two children. Those aged between seven and nine years are suffering from lung disease for the past several years. Instead of going to school, these children spend the whole day searching for pieces of coal in the heaps near the mines and bringing them home for fuel. “The whole area is full of dust and smoke. It doesn’t even rain. Even the owners of the mining companies don’t help the poor people. I am worried about my children’s health and their bleak future,” said Bibi, wiping tears from her cheeks.
Yousafzai said that due to inadequate health facilities, children of labourers fall sick. A paediatrician should be appointed for the children of mine workers as daily wage labourers earn very little due to which they cannot get their children properly treated.”
Under the Mines Act, 1923, the Mines and Minerals Development Department, the Balochistan branch of the Mines Labor Welfare Organization is responsible for the health, education and welfare of mine workers and their children. However, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the health care at the site is nominal. The hospital’s outpatient department sees 70 to 80 patients daily, of which half are children.
Speaking to The Third Poll, Duki Coalfield Mines Inspector Sabir Shah says that under the Coal Mines Regulations 1926 and the Mines Act 1923, a child below the age of 18 cannot work as a labourer in a mining area even if he Is it underground work, surface work or coal lifting work.
“If someone is caught violating the Act, after investigation, a Mines Inspector registers a case and submits it to the office of the Judicial Magistrate through the Chief Mines Inspector, where he is fined according to law,” says Shah.
Shah said that the Labor Wing of the Mines Department has ensured health facilities in all mining areas where the chest ailments of the coal mine workers, their family members and children are treated.
However, the locals associate it with a different reality. “We live in an area that is surrounded by coal mines. There is black smoke because people burn coal in their homes for cooking and heating. Most of the children in our village are affected, as is my son,” said Mohammad Arif, who runs a tire repair shop in Doki. He further said that the labourers living here can neither afford the cost of rented houses in the city nor their sick children in Quetta.
Muhammad Azeem, a doctor and the facilitator of the directly observed treatment, short-course (DOTS) tuberculosis (TB) control programme in Duki, says most coal miners suffer from TB, which spreads to other family members as it is a bacterial infection. Children brought up in coal dust are exposed to pollution and have more respiratory symptoms compared with children in other areas of the district. “Most of the patients are minors. Poverty, poor hygienic living conditions and little access to health facilities are contributing factors for the spread of TB in the area,” Azeem explains.
“Globally, the incidence of TB in coal miners is 10 times higher than in the general population,” says Ahmad Wali, another doctor and an official at the provincial TB control programme in Quetta. “The high concentration of coal dust in Balochistan’s coalfields as a result of an ineffective and unmonitored application of environmental laws and the lack of protective measures adopted by coal miners and mine owners make it even worse.” The TB control programme for Balochistan has a care facility in DHQ Hospital Duki, but the number of those in need of treatment far exceeds the facilities available, Wali says.
“Seventy to eighty patients are being examined on a daily basis at the hospital’s outpatient department; half of them are children,” Azeem confirms. “Thirty out of fourty children are usually suffering from chest infections, asthma and allergies.”
International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Program Head in Karachi Danish Rashidi says that although Pakistan is one of the signatories of the Paris Climate Agreement, which aims to limit global warming. Despite being a signatory, coal mining is likely to continue in Pakistan for some time. “Coal-fired power plants are very popular in Pakistan given our huge energy needs. For the time being, it seems that our dependence on coal power plants will continue until the Kahnji sector takes steps to offset carbon. And it doesn’t begin to offset the impacts of coal and move toward a clean energy future.”