Oh yes! You read it right. While people are touring the world, I spend 3 hours visiting an underground coal mine. Apparently, 'under' my city. When I came to this new place for my month long winter vacation, I casually told my father that I would like to see an underground coal mine. Now that we were in a colliery and the mines were close-by, I thought it would be possible. He talked to his colleague and today’s day was planned for my excursion. Of course that meant waking up almost 3-hours earlier than my normal holiday-waking-up-time (Noon!), but then, it was worth it!
|In the mining gear. The helmet, the flashlight, shoes and the stick. Notice the bell at the tunnel entrance near my left shoulder.|
Was I scared? A bit.
Was I anxious? A lot!
Was I excited? Of course!
As a tourist you can visit the most amazing places in the world but you can never visit one of the coal mines which are in so much abundance in our country!
I reached the underground mine’s site office with my Dad’s colleague around 10.15 in the morning. I was carrying my digi-cam, phone (with just 9% battery left) and specs and wearing a black tshirt (so the coal-dust doesn’t show), jeans and my Woodland shoes. At the site office, we changed the shoes and got the mine-special-trekking-shoes (they obviously had to look for a size 10 for me) because the normal shoes wouldn’t be suitable and would turn black! And then along with two more officials, we were taken to the mine entrance. Here, we got the mine gear- a walking stick and a safety helmet with a flashlight (actually it’s a helmet and a flashlight with a battery pack attached as a belt around your waist!). It was around 10.40 and the trek began.
|The view from the tunnel entrance. That's where the carriages get unloaded.|
A bell hung at the entrance of the ‘cave’ and we started our journey by ringing it. A pair of rail tracks lay on our way and we walked into the immediately-dark tunnel. Being ever excited about trains, I wanted to see this train. I didn’t have to wait long. A set of four unmanned carriages (or boxes?) filled with coal came up in a few moments and I was instructed to move into one of the cellars dug on the sides because there have been instances of ‘the carriages rolling over and spilling while moving and that’s deadly’.
We moved further downhill (or under-earth?). It was dark but the tube lights on the ceiling and our flashlights gave ample light. Within a few minutes I started wondering how difficult the return journey was going to be, when it would be this uneven terrain and an uphill route. These mine shoes were already hurting me. My Woodland boots would have been so much easier to carry! After about a couple of hundred metres, we took a turn and were on a level path. This looked like the main tunnel- it was broad, a couple of feet higher than me and there were two rail tracks here. This went for what I felt was a really long time. The path after this went on becoming darker and more difficult to walk on. On having almost all my concentration on the path, I hit the ceiling a couple of times. Thank God I had the helmet on! For the three men accompanying me, all this was a regular task and thus, easy. They had full-fledged conversations and laughs on as I, at times, struggled to find a level surface to put my foot on. I could hear the heavy flow of ground water through thick pipes in the sides of the tunnel. There were a couple of places where we had to cross areas where water was dripping from above. The downhill walk seemed to continue on an on.
We ultimately reached a spot with a few men at work. They were putting one of the carriages on the track, preparing it for holding load. It was at this point that I thought clicking photos would be a good thing to do, although I was a bit reluctant. As soon as I had my camera out and used the auto-flash and my flashlight to click a photo, one of the men accompanying me instructed every worker to point there helmet-lights in the same direction so that I could get a good click. And then, the photo spree began.
|Walking through the tunnel. See the wired reinforcements on the ceiling and walls.|
|This was a short 'pillar' to hold the ceiling.|
We went further down and the path forked in two separate directions. We took the one on right. It was pitch dark here. The only lights to guide us were the ones in our hands. The path didn’t go much further, just about 100 metres or so. This was when I asked how much deep under earth we were.
‘And how much have we walked?’
‘2.5 kilometres till this end of the tunnel.’
‘Wow! I didn’t even realize we had walked so much!’
We walked into a small side tunnel and this was when things started getting dramatic. Within 10 steps, it felt as if I had entered a furnace. It was extremely hot and within moments I was drenched in sweat.
‘This is a dead end. There is no air-circulation here. That’s why the heat. Don’t worry, we will be out soon,’ I was assured.
They were carrying an air-monitoring device and they checked it. The Carbon monoxide (CO) level which was less than 0.5 % outside this side tunnel shot up to 6 % here. The Carbon dioxide (CO2) level was up to 4 % from a mere 0.3 %. I held my breath, thinking of how poisonous the air was that I was breathing (I wasn’t that bad in Chemistry although I hated it!). I awaited the Oxygen level reading. It was down from 20.8 % to 20.4 %. I heaved a sigh of relief. I won’t suffocate at least!
‘In the city people pay 300 bucks for a sauna bath. How much do you pay in Delhi?’ one of the men asked me. I had no clue. ‘This is a free sauna and just a couple of minutes here is enough’, he laughed!
I took this moment to capture a selfie (That’s the Oxford Word of the Year 2013!). It was dark and the lights didn’t help much. But, you can see the sweat!
|Selfie! See the sweat? I was drenched in the heat.|
I checked my phone. It was 12.15. We then returned to the fork and took the other path. This one had lights and the sound of a machine could be heard from the distance. The path here was unstable. I realized it was coal that we were walking on and there was water. One had to be careful to choose where to put the foot. You might choose the wrong place and your leg would sink a feet or so into the coal. My jeans were already dirty and I thought folding the legs up now would be useless. We reached a dead end; there were about 20 workers here and good air circulation. A machine was loading the coal into the carriages. 3-4 men were holding a huge drilling machine and cutting through the end of the tunnel’s wall. The roof and uneven sides of the tunnel were held together by a strong net and many pieces of wood planks and nails. I failed to understand the engineering behind this, although it was explained to me in what I thought was a very ‘technical’ and ‘rote-learning’ explanation.
I took a few photographs and then to my relief, we were not going any further down. I was too tired by then and there was no place to even sit for a minute except the coal of course! I started wondering about the workers. Surely they didn’t take this as a career of choice. The work is severe for sure, and the workplace is so dangerous. You have no idea when the sky might fall and trap you! Who would ever want to work in this maut ka kuan (Death’s well)? Nearly 200 metres below the ground level, which mobile network would have coverage here? Absolutely no means of communication and these workers are mining that source of energy without which 80 % of India would not see electricity! Hats off to their perseverance and hard work!
|The majdoors at work.|
|Check the coal and water in this one. We had to walk through it.|
|A worker breaks a large piece of coal which would then be loaded to the carriage (behind him)|
|All the black is the wall of coal. End of tunnel. The workers were using a huge drilling machine to drill through it.|
|On our way back. I am not sure why the picture is out of focus. You can still see the curved shape of the tunnel through which we walked in.|
The journey back started. Uphill is going to be more difficult, I thought. I prepared myself for another 1.5 hours or so of walk. Somehow the walk was easier now that I was a little familiar with the place (or perhaps now it was my exhaustion and the wish to get on ground ASAP, which made it feel easier). There was a gust of fresh air coming in and hitting us face-on. It was not very later that I saw a huge amount of light at the end of the tunnel we were walking in. It took me some time to realize that it was the opening where we had entered the tunnel. And it was a surprise. I actually thought there was a lot of walking still left to be done!
Nature gave me a call. I asked my fellow ‘trekkers’, Where do the workers go to attend to nature’s call? Surely they didn’t walk 2.5 kms everytime!
‘They make use of some unused corner near where they work.’
I was surprised. Because although we had experienced a lot of different ‘smells’ of gases in the tunnel, I didn’t feel I had smelled pee anywhere. Yeah, this is also India!
We were soon greeted by the sunlight. My phone started buzzing in my pocket as soon as it caught some network. (I was surprised that the 9 % battery had gone down by just 1 % in over 3 hours. I love Lumia for this!) Everyone rang the bell once again. It was a symbol of victory, going in there and coming out safe. I felt proud on accomplishing the daunting task. You don’t go for a 5 km trek every other day towards the centre of the earth, do you? I got a photo clicked in the mining gear at the cave entrance. It was nearly 2 PM and we called it a day.
On reaching home, a good bath was what I looked forward to. I had skipped breakfast and was hungry. I had lunch and then browsed through the photos of the day. A blog entry is a must, I thought. But only when I have some energy! Right now, the bed looked too inviting.