Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A journey to the center of the Earth

It isn’t as desolate and gloomy as it’s made out to be. Workers are chatting, working some pausing to take breaks, some subdued humming can also be heard. I hear a deep rumble come closer, and closer, till I can distinctly place it to be the trolleys coming towards the loading point. Apart from the fact that there is no light there is scarcley anything that would suggest I’m inside one of the most dangerous working conditions on this planet. An underground coal mine.

Contrary to all expectations a cool breeze blows past. I turn around straining my eyes foolishly trying to find out where it comes from.

“Andar mein hawa acha hai naa?”

Shyam Sunder Prasad is a mining sardar at Bhurkunda. He’s been ‘deputed’to give me a tour. Cameras, to my utter dismay are not allowed. He has been quizzing me throughout the walk. What is coal used for? Which is the oldest mine in India? Why is it necessary to leave the pillars when mining? Why are the walls of the mine painted white? If you’re left alone and your battery dies out how will you get back? I’m not entirely sure if I’m supposed to answer the questions or plainly nod. I’ve tried both and have yet to illicit a reaction from him.

“Haan! Neeche ka taapman upar se better hai!”

He stops and turns around. I brace myself for another question. According to the alternate question theory I’m expected to answer this one.

“Batao aisa kyun?” he quizzically raises his eyebrows and shines his torch in my direction. I lift my hand to cover my eyes, and the movement costs me dear. He answers.

“Upar mein, bada-bada fan laga hua hain. Karib karib man leejeye 8 foot ka. Un fan se gas nikala jaata hai mine se. Jab gas nikalta hai toh….” He pauses.

“low pressure ke kaaran hawa andar aata hai.” I answer back.

We have now walked close to 4800m to a depth of around 850-900 m. There is complex mathematics involved in the deciphering of this figure and no questions will be entertained. Shyam Sunder babu tells me that they are de-pillaring parts of the mine right now. Imagine removing the pillar off from a building. Common sense tells us the roof will collapse. In a mine, several sections of stone are left in the shape of pillars (about 25m in diameter) to hold the roof up. When most of the coal from the area around is extracted they start demolish the pillars to use that too. This is done wheh they are retreating from an area. Slowly, they blast parts of the pillar, taking care to hoist temporary wooden pillars to hold up the roof.

We’re now standing in front of a pillar that has been drilled into and made ready for blasting. Small sticks of explosive (non-inflamnable - huge expense is incurred to import these) will be inserted into the holes, people will hide for cover and the fuse detonated. We’ve been waiting for the blasting team to arrive for about half an hour now.

I’m standing aorund, breaking pieces of coal from the walls, shining my light randomly, catching bits of Shyam Sunder babu’s conversations, when suddenly Manoj Bhaiya (trainee mining sardar in a different mine, union worker) who hasn’t said a word throughout the journey asks me

“Aap ko ajeeb lag raha hoga. Akbaki saa?”

“Nah! Aisa toh kuch nahi.”

“Aisa nahin lag raha hai ki kabhi bhi kuch bhi ho sakta hai. Kya pata kab kya gir jaye!”


I nod in silence, unable to answer. I’d never contemplated facing such a situation. I don’t think I’ve woken up to the fact that I’m in a mine yet. I look around and the workers are busy erecting another pillar. Shyam Sunder babu is supervising this. I’m left thinking about what Manoj Bhaiya said.

The climb back is a pain. The battery strapped to my back slowly gains weight and before you know it you’re back to the surface. Within minutes I’m sweating and contemplate going back.

I tried getting some pictures on my cellphone. a disaster as you can see. In one of them you can see the workers drilling through a part of the pillar. Strain your eyes, use your imagination to fill up the blanks and you'll see it.