The coal industry in India witnessed its inception in 1774. However, it took almost a century for this industry to rise above its infancy and proclaim its actual arrival around the second half of the 19th century. What followed was the story of remarkable growth albeit with its share of ups and downs down the line. The flipside of this account of prosperity has not, however, escaped the scrutiny of historians. The oppressive attitudes of the coal-producing lobby and the miners’ miserable conditions have time and again found their place in prevalent labour historiography. Intriguing themes, for instance, production relations, migration of labour, manipulation around the recruitment of labour, workers’ resistance movements and debates around women and child labour have further enriched the discourse. This project aims to add a new dimension to this ongoing debate. The prime objective of this study is to unearth the history of hygiene issues at workplaces in the coalfields of Raniganj and Jharia districts in eastern India and of hygiene in their adjacent regions in eastern India, 1901 and 1973. The expansion of the industry was not without its adverse effects on human as well as natural resources. This project thus, has as its focus the health of the miner as well as the health of the mineral, i.e. coal, with its attendant thrusts on industrial hygiene and mine technology. Going beyond the colonial time-frame, this study also attempts an investigation into miners’ working and living standards in the first quarter of postindependent India. Moreover, a parallel will be drawn between miners’ living conditions at collieries of eastern India and those of Natal in South Africa. It will be interesting to look into two diverse pictures in these different colonial settlements. As far as labour legislation and methods of mining are concerned, a comparative study with Britain is on the cards. The first research question that this study aims to address is the health of the miners. Engaged in hazardous underground mining activities, the miners were exposed to serious and fatal accidents. The collapse of roofs and the sides was the most common form of accidents. Next in importance were accidents in haulage routes and shafts as well as explosions. The pertinent question is what played the pivotal part in those cases
of accidents: was it the miners’ lack of mining knowledge, was it the subordinate officials’ paucity of proper supervision or was it the lack of adequate attention of the mine-owners and mine-managers to the workers’ safety concerns? In his report of 1912, the Chief Inspector of Mines coined categories of accidents for example those due to misadventure, due to the fault of the deceased, due to the fault of the fellow workmen and due to the fault of the subordinate officials (sirdars). The newly-formed categories singled out “managerial fault” as a distinct category which consisted of accidents fewer in number in relation to others. The intention was clear. It was to hold the miner primarily responsible for his misfortunes. But the colliery owners and managers hardly provided them with the proper training in the mining principles. It was only in 1909 that a book on mining practices was proposed to be brought out in Bengali. This is not to forget that a large chunk of miners used to migrate from regions outside Bengal like the Central Provinces. The principal reason for ascribing responsibility to the miners was to not have to pay compensation in case of permanent disablement or death. The case was just the reverse in Britain. The scope of the Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1923 was broadened for the Indian coal miners only after independence. True, some of these accidents pointed to the responsibility of the miners like in cases of pillar-robbing or drinking while working, but even when managerial fault was indicated, the penalty was minimal. The management even failed on a number of occasions to report cases of serious and...
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