January 8, 2024

As Bangladesh’s oldest mine runs out of coal, its miners are running out of luck

Afjal Hossain, ‍a 54-year-old miner has spent more than half of his life beneath the ground, extracting coal from the Barapukuria coal mine — the only operational one in Bangladesh. He hopes his son will take over for him once he retires. 

However, reserves are dwindling at the Barapukuria Coal Mining Company Limited and it is most likely to be shut down by 2027, leaving many local workers like Afjal to fend for their livelihoods. 

“Compared to my current and early days’ salaries, it seems I had offered volunteer work for years. However, I would like to continue working for a few more years as now I’m getting a manageable salary. Then my only desire is to have my son replace me,” said Afjal. 

He started working as a day labourer at the mine at Tk1,200 per month ($11.42) soon after the land acquisition in 1995 and became a local coal miner once commercial operations kicked off in 2005.

In his 28-year-long mining career, Afjal has witnessed dozens of minor and medium injuries while extracting coal thousands of metres beneath the earth’s surface.

Back in 2019, he faced a major accident when a chunk of coal fell upon his body while extracting coal. He escaped death but lost all his lower teeth and his gums.

Despite all the adversity, Afjal has not left the job as he believes has no other way to earn a livelihood. And plans to continue this job for as long as he can before his son replaces him so that the family can continue receiving income once he retires. 

Similarly, Mohammad Shafiur, a 38-year-old miner, has been extracting coal for the last 18 years to feed his six-member family, including his aged parents and two children.

Shafiur started working in the coal mine at the age of 20 in 2006. After 17 years, just like Afjal, he sees no alternative means of earning. He used to assist his father in farming, but since they have no land to cultivate crops any more, this is his only option. 

If coal production ceases, workers like Afjal and Shafiur will be left unemployed with no alternative job prospects.

Aware of how the shutdown will impact workers, Barapukuria Coal Mining officials said they are seeking permission from the Energy and Mineral Resource Division to develop the southern and northern parts of the mine that have more reserves. Since the beginning, coal has been produced from the central part of the basin. If either side of the central part is developed through the open-cut method, around 170 million tonnes of coal could be extracted from there. 

But the government has yet to deliver any decision on the further development of the mine due to its carbon reduction pledges to the Conference of the Parties (COP) and to protect fertile land. There are also concerns about potential protests that could happen over land acquisition. 

In COP26, Bangladesh reiterated that it will cut carbon emissions by 89.47 million tonnes, equivalent to 21.85% of CO2, by 2030 to participate in global mitigation efforts for promoting renewable energy, energy efficiency and conservation.

Coal production in Bangladesh

Most of Bangladesh’s carbon emissions come from an energy sector which is dominated by gas and liquid fuel, according to the Nationally Determined Contribution of Bangladesh. Coal – also referred to as “the dirtiest fossil fuel” – contributes only 13% to Bangladesh’s energy needs, according to Bangladesh Power Development Board’s data. 

Five coal fields with a total estimated reserve of 7.82 billion tonnes have been discovered so far in the northwestern part of Bangladesh.

Out of these five, Bangladesh Oil, Gas and Mineral Resource Corporation (Petrobangla) have developed the first and only coal mine in the country at Barapukuria acquiring around 800 acres of land.

Commercial coal production started in September 2005 with a Chinese consortium of Xuzhou Coal Mining Group (XMC) and the China National Machinery Import and Export Corporation (CMC), the mine developer, according to the coal mine company’s annual report. 

In the last 18 years, a total of 14 million tonnes of coal was extracted from the mine against a projected reserve of 400 million, said Md Shaiful Islam Sarkar, managing director of Barapukuria Coal Mining Company Limited.  

Another 3.5 million tonnes of coal is expected to be produced from the central mine in the next four years, he added.

Shaiful also said that they have informed the current production situation and feasible production year to Petrobangla and the Energy and Mineral Resource Division.

In its note presented to the prime minister on 16 March 2023, Barapukuria Coal Mining Company Limited chalked out its plan to develop the north-south part of the mine through the open-cut method which would need to acquire around 22 square kilometres of land. 

But it could help them produce coal for another 30 years.

“However, we have yet to receive any decision from the higher authorities,” said Shaiful.

When asked, Zanendra Nath Sarker, chairman of Petrobangla, said that they are looking for options to continue coal production at the mine.

“We still have some reserves in the northern and southern parts of the existing mine. We are considering production from there. Besides, we have two coal mines near the existing ones — Phulbari and Dighipara coal fields in Nawabganj — as options. We can proceed with one of these if we get approval from the highest level, though that discussion is still in the primary stage,” he said.

Depleting workforce and confusion      

Coal production in the Barapukuria coal mine is a job that depends on manual labour, which is being provided by the marginalised communities nearby.  

Around 1,100 to 1,200 local workers and more than 300 Chinese labourers used to work in the mine, according to the coal mining company’s documents and mine workers. But in the last few years, the numbers of both local and Chinese workers have been decreasing as the mine’s reserve and daily coal production have been dwindling.      

In June 2019, the total number of daily workers at the mine was 1,079, which dropped to 1,043 in June 2022, documents show. The documents also show a drop in the number of workers who were brought in from China too. In June 2021, the number of registered Chinese workers was 313, which dropped to 211 in June 2022.

As per the XMC-CMC’s general agreement with local workers, if any worker retires from work due to age or health issues, or dies, his position will be filled by his offspring. 

Asaduzzaman, general secretary of the Mine Workers Union, said that there are around 40 workers in the last four years who have retired from mining but their children were not given the opportunity to take their place. 

“We have been requesting mine authorities to fill in the positions with former workers’ children, but the coal mining company and Chinese contractors are not heeding our demand,” added Asaduzzaman. 

Shahidul Islam Sheikh, a wounded worker who left mining after an accident at work, has been requesting the authorities to recruit his daughter or son-in-law as a computer operator, but could not get them to meet that demand in the last 10 years.

Jobs at thermal power plants are also at risk

The coal produced in the Barapukuria mine is the primary energy source of the nearby 525MW thermal power plant that meets around 64% of the electricity demand for the eight districts of the Rangpur Division, the northern region of the country which is home to 17.6 million people.

Since 2005, the mine has been continuously feeding the power plant to generate electricity for the region.

Amid the price volatility of the primary energy in the global market, the thermal power plant is supplying cost-effective electricity to the Bangladesh Power Development Board (BPDB), a state-owned organisation responsible for producing and purchasing electricity from public and private producers.

Closure of the coal mines due to dwindling reserves will risk the power supply situation of the region too, Md Abu Bakar Siddique, chief engineer of the plant said. At present, the plant has a total of 500 employees, which include engineers, office staff, fitter-men (engineers’ assistants), computer operators, peons and others. 

“If the power plant shuts down, engineers would be transferred to BPDB’s other plant. But those staff who are from the locality will face a blow because their salaries will not be enough to afford to rent a house in the newly posted area, nor help them to commute for their work,” said a top official at the power plant. 

Currently, they are able to manage their living expenses as they live in their village homes where the power plant is located.   

Shedding ‘blood with coal’ for minimum payout

The consortium of XMC and CMC currently makes varying payments to workers with different titles: foreman, skilled and unskilled.

Foremen get Tk40,000 ($380) per month as the total salary. Skilled workers get Tk32,000 ($394), whereas unskilled workers get Tk28,000 ($266). 

However, workers say that their wages are not reflective of their hard work and effort.”If the monthly wage increased to Tk50,000 ($476), then we could manage the minimum living standards,” said Md Forhand Ali, a skilled worker.  

“If you work in any other occupation and retire, you will get at least a minimum amount from your employer. But here you will not get anything from the day you leave work,” he added.

“Apart from the monthly salary, we have no other facilities, not even post-retirement benefits from the mine contractor,” said Md Zakir Hossen, president of the local Mine Workers’ Union “But if anybody leaves work after falling sick due to over-sweating and injury, CMC will cut Tk100 from their salary.”

If a worker gets injured while working, they are supposed to get a full salary for the first three months and then 80% of the full salary for the next three months. If the worker is still injured after six months, they receive 50% of their original salary for the following three months.

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