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Priyarag Verma
Tuesday , March 20, 2012 at 17 : 07

Pranabda, Tondulkar and Chasnala tragedy


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The business of news can be very demanding, uncompromising and extremely cruel. What defines news depends not only on the gravity of the incident, but also on how many people it impacts and more importantly in today's world by the TRPs (if it's a news channel), pageviews (if it's a news website) and copies sold (if it's a newspaper).

On all the three parameters the day Union Budget is presented in India is a big news day, preparations for which start weeks in advance in all the newsrooms across the country. And if on the same day Sachin Tendulkar, the demigod of Indian cricket, scores his 100th international century, no matter if it comes on a placid, batsman-friendly pitch against Bangladesh, the madness in a newsroom is complete.

But what if the day is also a witness to a verdict announced in a 36-year-old case in which at least 372 miners met their watery grave deep inside a coalmine in Jharkhand. What chance do that tragedy, its aftermath and the case have of featuring in the national media?

ALMOST ZERO. YES ZERO.

For such news items do not ring a bell among the advertisers as they do not connect with the bourgeois or the upwardly mobile middle class, who form the largest consumer base and determine what news items should be on prime time television and the homepages of the websites.

But this story needs to be hold, even if to show how insensitive and callous India has become when it comes to the poor, and also to show how what the media projects as news may not always be the only thing happening across the country and the world.

On the day Pranabda presented his budget and Tendulkar reached the historic landmark, a group of people in Jharkhand's Dhanbad, the capital of India's Ruhr Valley, were eagerly hearing a local court pronounce its verdict in a case that lies buried deep inside the pages of history. The court pronounced its verdict in the more than 36-year-old Chasnala Colliery disaster case where according to official records 372 workers were killed.

For those wondering what this Chasnala tragedy is all about here is a clue. This is the same story on which Bollywood movie Kaala Patthar directed by Yash Chopra and starring Amitabh Bachchan, Shashi Kapoor, Shatrughan Sinha, Rakhee Gulzar and Neetu Singh hit the screens in 1979.

Announcing the verdict, the court sent two former Indian Iron and Steel Company (IISCO) officials, R Bhattacharya and Deepak Sarkar, to one year in jail and also imposed a fine of Rs 5,000 each on both the individuals. Bhattacharya was the manager of the colliery and Sarkar a project officer when the disaster struck the mine on December 27, 1975. The Chasnala Colliery disaster rather massacre was one of the worst industrial accidents in Indian history and yet the accused have been give a jail term of just one year. Two other accused in the case, JN Ohri and SK Banerjee, died during the trial.

But for the families of the workers killed, the verdict brought no closure. Many families spent their life in penury as they pursued the case. Over the years several of them committed suicide, some of them moved out of Chasnala in search of better opportunities and livelihood while other just rued their fate.

The tragedy struck Chasnala Colliery on December 27, 1975 when several crore gallons of water flooded two mining pits, trapping the miners. While the real cause of the flooding is not known, the most plausible explanation is that an explosion ignited methane gas present in the mine resulting in the collapse of the mine wall and water from a nearby reservoir flooding the pits.

The sirens near the lifts that took the miners deep inside the mine started blaring, bringing the family members and onlookers near the pits. Their fears soon gave way to hysterical wailing, shouting and chaos as they realised that the colliery was ill-equipped to carry out the rescue operations and the trapped miners were doomed.

The rescue efforts went on for more than three weeks but not a single trapped worker could be saved. What made matters worse was that most of the bodies, too, were never recovered and the actual death toll remained a mystery due to poor records maintained by the colliery officials.

Making a travesty of the entire rescue operation some submersible pumps were brought from Poland and the erstwhile USSR a week after the flooding to pump the water out of the mines.

Dhanbad was in Bihar at the time of tragedy and the then state government appointed a panel under former Patna High Court Chief Justice UN Sinha to probe the disaster. Justice Sinha submitted his report on March 24, 1977 and on its basis the government filed criminal cases against four IISCO officials, charging them with only negligence!

The trial held far away from media glare, screaming and shouting self-righteous anchors and reporters was awaited with bated breath by the families of those killed in the mine disaster.

But the verdict has left them bitter and cursing their fate even as India fired by the electricity generated by coal moves on to claim its still elusive status as one of the powerhouses of the world.

Over 55 per cent of electricity in India is generated by coal-fired plants but for those left behind in Chasnala such statistics mean nothing. For them the names of those 372 (the unofficial toll is more than 600) etched on a memorial erected near the colliery is all that matters.

For the rest of India these 372 are not even statistics, but just a small price to pay for development. Similar accidents still take place across the coal mines in Jharkhand and other coal-mining regions particularly during the monsoon season, and hardly ever make news.

Although aware of tragedy and the trial, I was alerted about the verdict by one of my friends working for a Bihar-based news channel, who SMSed me pointing out that Chasnala was one more tragedy forgotten by a forward marching India. And how true his SMS was.


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More about Priyarag Verma

Priyarag Verma has been following all the twists and turns of Indian politics closely. He follows sports very closely and has a special liking for cricket, football, Formula One, hockey, tennis and athletics.
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