December has been the cruellest month of the year for the Indian industry. Less than 10 years before the Bhopal Gas tragedy, another horrendous accident saw 375 miners buried alive in a deep shaft mine.
The Chasnala mining disaster of December 27, 1975, unfolded in a coal mine near Dhanbad in what was then Bihar. The colliery belonged to the government-owned Indian Iron and Steel Company (IISCo). An already weakened 80-feet wall of coal between the active mine pit and another, abandoned mine, above it that was full of water, collapsed suddenly even as 375 miners and company officials were inside it. It was triggered either by an explosion or simply by the strain of years. What followed was a monumental tragedy.
Experts estimated that about 1,35,000 cubic metres of water rushed into the active mine with the miners trapped in a watery grave. Death was instantaneous and horrible. A paper by the Centre on Environmental Problems of Mining mentioned that "The remains of some of the bodies could be identified by their cap-lamps, wearing apparel and/or by some materials like keys, knives, etc. However, most of them could not be identified because cap-lamps were not found attached to them."
The explosion was never confirmed nor explained. It did bear an eerie resemblance to the one that triggered the Courrieres mine disaster in France in 1906 which led to the death of 1099 men making it the second deadliest coal mining disaster in history. Tragically, the Chasnala accident was the second such disaster in the mines near Dhanbad. In 1965, another catastrophe had occurred in Dhori colliery near Dhanbad, leading to the death of 268 miners.
In the investigations that followed, it became clear that safety procedures had been given short shrift and dangerous signs ignored. The barrier between the two mines was too thin. There was hardly any safety equipment available on the site. In fact, the high-pressure pumps needed to clear the water had to be brought in from Russia and Poland.
Even though an enquiry under Ujjal Narayan Sinha, the former Chief Justice of the Patna High Court, submitted its report two years later, it took 37 years for the case to come to some closure. Of the four people who were found guilty, two had died by then. The other two were sentenced to a year in prison.
The incident gained more attention when a 1979 movie Kala Pathar with a multistar cast comprising Amitabh Bachhan, Shatrughan Sinha, Neetu Singh and Shashi Kapoor was made based on a script by Salim-Javed.
Today a memorial at the site, Shaheed Smarak, is the only grim reminder of India's worst mining disaster.
—Sundeep Khanna is a former editor and the co-author of the recently released Azim Premji: The Man Beyond the Billions. Views are personal
(Edited by : Ajay Vaishnav)