The South Asia Channel

Ignoring Baluchistan

st1:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } /* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:”Table Normal”; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-parent:””; mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt; mso-para-margin:0in; mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:10.0pt; font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-ansi-language:#0400; mso-fareast-language:#0400; mso-bidi-language:#0400;} It’s official: If there’s a coal mine disaster in Pakistan and no television to cover it, no one can hear a sound. Recently a series of blasts caused ...

BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images
BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images


st1:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) }
/* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:”Table Normal”; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-parent:””; mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt; mso-para-margin:0in; mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:10.0pt; font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-ansi-language:#0400; mso-fareast-language:#0400; mso-bidi-language:#0400;}

It’s official: If there’s a coal mine disaster in Pakistan and no television to cover it, no one can hear a sound.

Recently a series of blasts caused by the accumulation of methane gas resulted in the underground death of 43 coal miners in the Sorang area of Baluchistan.  Baluchistan is the largest and least “developed” of Pakistan’s five provinces, and the mine is located about 25 kilometers from the provincial capital Quetta.

But judging from the coverage the event got in local media (as contrasted by the coverage it got internationally), the tragedy never occurred.  Local news was instead dominated by the release of CIA operative Raymond Davis, a suspected U.S. drone attack that killed over 40 the day after, World Cup Cricket (and for one media group, its ongoing battle with cable operators over broadcast rights) and President Asif Ali Zardari’s address to the Parliament (he didn’t mention the mining incident but did condemn the burning of a Quran in Florida).  It’s as if the mine accident didn’t happen.  Worse, it’s as if no one cares.  Yet this disaster and ensuing lack of coverage raises several important issues, none of them good.

The first is safety.  The Baluchistan government has announced a probe of the explosions after it was revealed that the provincial Mines and Minerals Department had actually ordered the mine closed on account of the accumulation of dangerous quantities of methane gas inside.  There are laws, rules and regulations governing the granting of mining concessions and prescribing safety procedures. However, these are archaic and, in any event, have been observed loosely at best for so long that violations of the law are the norm, not the exception.  Additionally, the working conditions in the mines are medieval. Miners, like the ones that were killed in Sorang, travel as far down as 6,000 meters with nothing but hard-hats with lights attached, and pickets to chip away at the coal.  There are some 60,000 miners working in 2,300 mines in Baluchistan, and for far too many their lives are, to place Hobbes in a different context, nasty, brutish and short.

Another issue is the role of foreign investment in Baluchistan.  Despite being consistently overlooked by Pakistan’s central government due to its low population, the province is rich in deposits of copper, gold, gas and rare earth metals.  The potential of these resources have attracted giants like Canadian gold giant Barrick Gold and Antofogast PLC, the Chilean conglomerate, who have formed the Tetheyan Copper Company (Private) Limited (TCC) to explore and mine deposits.  The Supreme Court of Pakistan has been investigating the granting of licenses in the Riqo Diq mine to TCC.  Riqo Diq is one of the largest copper deposits in the world and the Court’s investigation so far has been inconclusive.  This is largely because TCC has complied “with existing laws and regulations.”  No one questions the professionalism of TCC, but one wonders what types of laws the Government of Baluchistan is enforcing if the Sorang disaster is the outcome.

The role of the media in bringing this incident to public attention also deserves a look.  The near-total media blackout of this most recent incident has less to do with censorship of any form than with viewing dynamics.  Milk, soaps and mobile phones (rather than coal) are sold in Pakistani cities, and urbanites don’t care what going on in the districts. The media contents itself to whip up public emotion over issues related to “national honor” as in the cases of Raymond Davis and Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, ignoring serious but less sexy issues like mine safety. Yet working conditions in Baluchistan are unlikely to improve without the media reporting on them.

Finally, the mining disaster sheds light on the state of governance in Baluchistan.  The elephant in the room during any discussion of the province is the ongoing Baluch insurgency, and the resentments against the economic and political attention given to the larger provinces will only be exacerbated by the way the tragedy has been dealt with, or rather ignored.  Another insight comes from the provincial government’s reaction: the first minister to appear on the scene after the explosions was the Baluchistan Minister for Urban Development, an appearance that likely has less to do with the fact that the affected area may or may not have been his constituency than the fact that the nearby Quetta Municipal Corporation, which falls under the administration of the Minister’s Department, is the only entity that had anything resembling the cranes and rescue equipment to recover the charred remains of the dead.  The minister was likely the only person able to arrange the delivery of the necessary equipment, necessitating his appearance on site.

The Chief Minister of Baluchistan has ordered a probe into the incident.  A head or two will roll.  A Secretary will become an “Officer on Special Duty,” or OSD, the common euphemism for suspended pending a transfer.  But the most terrifying insight this tragedy reveals is that, for now, Baluchistan remains a territory rich in resources, not humanity.

Ahmad Rafay Alam is a lawyer, academic and activist based in Lahore.  He can be followed at www.twitter.com/rafay_alam

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola