The labour ministry is planning to move a Bill to amend the Mines Act in the Monsoon session of Parliament, which proposes an increase in penalties on mining companies by as much as 100% in case of death of workers due to any lapse in operations, a senior government official said on Thursday. The Bill will also enlarge the coverage of workers in special economic zones, territorial waters, continental shelf and other maritime zones, where oil explorations are being carried out.
“The Bill will address the safety issues of mining workers. We are trying to introduce the Bill in Monsoon session,” a labour ministry official told FE.
The urgency to amend the Mines Act comes in the wake of rising accidents especially in the metals segment of mining. According to the latest data available with Directorate General of Mines Safety, the fatality rate or deaths due to fatal accidents has come down in coal mines to 0.27 per 1,000 workers during 2001-10 from 0.33 during 1991-2000, while it has increased to 0.39 in non-coal mines from 0.36 during the same period. The fatality rates in coal mines were as high as 1.33 during 1931-40, while it was 0.73 for non-coal mines during 1911-20 as the then British rulers cared little for Indian workers. Though the fatality has progressively receded after the Independence after the government tightened safety rules, there is a rising trend in last decade in non-coal mines.
“Mining being very hazardous where any negligence may lead to loss of lives, the penalties need to be made stringent so that the offender is not let off with a token penalty. So, penalties have been enhanced by about 100 times in the proposed Bill,” the labour ministry official said.
The term of imprisonment for violation of safety rules could be extended to five years from three, and for serious violations it would be extended to seven years from five. The proposed Bill will prevent evasion of responsibility and covers not just the owners, CEOs and managing directors, both Indian or foreign, but also supervisors or operators of the mines.
While Mines Act was last amended in 1983, India’s industrial sector has undergone significant changes with global firms expanding their foothold in the country, bringing in the latest technology to dig deeper to extract minerals and exploring oil in deep seas. The present legislation covers only mines within the land mass of the country and hence lacks adequate safeguard for workers working in deep seas. While mechanisation has lowered the need for manpower, India still employs over 5,50,000 workers in coal, oil and metals sectors. Occupational hazards have shifted labour from mines to other industrial sectors over the decades.
Planning Commission data shows the average daily employment shrunk to 1,56,900 in metals during 2008 from as high as 2,59,700 in 1961, while it came down to 3,69,400 in coal during 2008 from a peak of 5,54,100 during 1991.
If India has to attain high growth rate of 9% in the next five years, mining and exploration activities have to expand faster to meet the growing demand for hydrocarbon fuels and minerals needed to ramp up capacities in factories and step up infrastructure. The pressure to ratchet up output in mines has also raised the risk level for thousands of workers. The labour ministry is worried over the lack of workers? safety in the wake of rising fatal accidents in the last decade.
In 2010, the government decided to amend the Mines Act going by the high rates of fatal accidents. The move also came after a country-wide protest to the inadequate compensation to victims of Bhopal gas tragedy, even as the punishment for offenders ? the top officials of erstwhile Union Carbide ? was a modest two-years of imprisonment and a fine of just $2000. Although the Cabinet approved the amendment, the Bill could not be introduced in 2011 as Parliament was paralysed by opposition protests over a series of corruption charges. The labour ministry is now trying to move the Bill in the Monsoon session.