Bhatti Bajri Mines
Date of the Accidents– Fatal accidents on 10th, 16th and 24th, January, 1983
Owner = Delhi State Industries Development Corporation (DSIDC)
Place – Union Territory of Delhi
These accidents illustrate what happens when public interest is sacrificed for private gain. All the three accidents which occurred on the 10th, 16th and 24th January, 1983 were caused due to the collapse of sides of the pits and the victims who were working at the bottom of the pits were buried under the debris.
Similar accidents had occurred repeatedly in the past: 3 persons had died in 1977, 6 in 1978, 2 in 1979, 8 in 1980 and 10 in 1981 (upto 20.10.81). The cause of all these accidents was fall of the sides of pits.
The mining of Bajri or Badarpur sand (used for construction work) in the Bhatti Mines is regulated by the Delhi Minor Mineral Rules, 1962 and permits are granted by the Collector (Mines) for undertaking mining operations. Upto October 1975, private permit holders were mining the sand and the State was receiving a royalty on the quantity of sand removed from the mine. The permit holders exploited the mineral as cheaply as possible and sold it as profitably as possible. They bothered neither about appointing qualified supervisors nor about complying with the other provisions of the Mines Act and the Metalliferous Mines Regulations. They even ignored the directives given by the DGMS. The result was that the safety of the workers was totally neglected and large number of accidents continued to occur. In view of the danger to the lives of persons employed therein, the DGMS prohibited the working of the mines on 1.5.1970 under S-22(3) of the Mines Act.
Under the Delhi Minor Mineral Rules, short term permits were granted which meant that there was total lack of long term planning for the working of the mines. The inevitable result was that neither the overburden was removed systematically nor benches were, formed in the sand bed as required under MMR-106. Quite often the steep sides of the quarry collapsed burying the worker and also the mule used by him to transport the sand from the bottom of the pit to the surface.
On 3.5.1975 the Union Labour Minister suggested to the Lt. Governor of Delhi to consider working the mines departmentally in accordance with the provisions of the Mines Act and the MMR. The Executive Council of Delhi decided on 13.11.1975 to take over the minor mineral operations around Bhatti and Badarpur by DSIDC and on 22.11.1975 the Bhatti Mines were taken over by DSIDC. But instead of working the mines departmentally, the DSIDC engaged a number of contractors to excavate sand from the New Bhatti mines. Each contractor was allotted a particular area over which he was to remove the overburden and excavate the underlying pay-mineral after making benches in accordance with MMR- 106 under the supervision of Mining Engineers of DSIDC.
However, there was total lack of effective supervision by DSIDC over the working of the mines and the contractors continued the old system of working. The contractors were selling the mineral independently and the DSIDC was functioning virtually as an agency only to collect royalty at the check post. In December, 1978 the New Bhatti Mines Part A was closed by DGMS under S-22(l A) and then in September 1982 part B of the New Mines was also closed. But in spite of these orders, mining by the contractors was continued in the prohibited areas and the fixed payment per truck was received by the DSIDC from the contractors. Then came the three accidents in January 1983. It was only from 28.1.1983 that the mines were actually closed by DSIDC.
The system that was followed over the years allowed the contractors to raise the mineral and sell it themselves. This had resulted in a situation where contractors had developed almost independent control over the entire mining operations with attendant financial benefits. They had been able to resist the attempts of DSIDC for rectification of the defects in the working of the mines. The Managers, Foremen and Mining Mates, appointed by DSIDC had no effective control over the workers who continued to work in dangerous places. It was apparent that it would not be easy to bring about a change in the existing system of working and it was also clear that as long as this system continued, accidents could not be prevented.
The main cause of the accident was the divorce of legal responsibility from the actual working of the mines. The responsibility for compliance with the law was borne by DSIDC as the owner of the mines whereas the mines were actually worked by the contractors who had no legal responsibility.
No satisfactory explanation was put forward as to why DSIDC could not work the mines departmentally. It was reported that the contractors were persuading the workers not to cooperate with DSIDC in working the mines departmentally. They were telling the workers that they would get less wages. Moreover, under the contractors, the whole family, including children, was working in the mines and women were working even at night. The DSIDC would employ them as per the law and therefore would neither allow children to work nor allow women to work at night. Consequently, their earnings would be less. However, this problem could have been sorted out by discussions with the workers. The truth of the story is that the officers of DSIDC never really tried to work the mines departmentally. Like civil servants, they were averse to shoulder responsibility for unpopular decisions or to take risks in pushing through unpopular reforms. They should have sat down with the workers and negotiated a fair rate of wage.
Alternatively, DSIDC could have employed Raising/Labour contractors who would have got wages from the DSIDC like the labour actually working in the mines but would not have any right on the mineral quarried. Penalties could have been imposed on them for contravention of the statutory provisions.
Unfortunately, the DSIDC did not adopt any of these alternatives. No wonder, allegations of connivance and corruption had been made in the press against officers of the DSIDC. The illegality and immorality of this system was admitted by everybody who participated in the inquiry. The DSIDC was certainly in a position to have ended this system-long ago. There was no real justification why it did not do so.
The DSIDC alone was responsible for the accidents because it alone could enforce compliance with MMR-106 and thus prevent these accidents.
The public interest in both its dimensions, namely, economic and safety had been completely sacrificed by the system of work adopted. The ownership of the minerals was in the permit holder, that is, the DSIDC. It alone had the right to sell the mineral. Yet the mineral was being allowed to be sold by the contractors who had no right to do so. The profits of such sale ought to have come to the public revenue. To allow the contractors to take them away was to connive at an open theft of valuable national resources. It is highly regrettable that such connivance should be on the part of a public corporation like the DSIDC.
The sacrifice of the public interest in the safety of the mine workers is equally indefensible. DSIDC allowed the contractors to work the mines contravening all the safety laws. The DSIDC behaved like the proverbially inactive civil servant. As an independent entity the DSIDC had no business to behave like supine civil servants. It should have acted like a private businessman who will not allow the economic and safety aspects of public interest to be defecated by a few disgruntled persons.
The sad story of the Bhatti Mines is a warning against certain pitfalls. Firstly, the public interest in scientific exploitation of minerals and in observing safety precautions to prevent accidents are not likely to be protected by those persons who are interested only in making quick profits. Secondly, even when a Public Corporation like the DSIDC is made the sole permit holder, the protection of these public interests is not automatically assured. The employees of the corporation must realise that they are public servants and must fulfill their statutory responsibilities or otherwise step aside.
Finally, the Court expressed the hope that the shocking spectacle of one Department of the Government (DGMS) prosecuting a State Corporation set up by another Department of the Government will never be seen again.