Five minutes to midnight: Chile shows the way (Comment)

By Nupur Basu, IANS
Thursday, October 14, 2010

In the last two decades when the world has been plagued by terrorism, violence, war, poverty, disease and natural disasters like tsunamis and earthquakes, the pictures of the amazing operation of rescue of 33 miners trapped in the copper and gold mine in Copiapo in San Hose, Chile, will probably go down as this decade’s best loved story.

The synergy of what a determined government, a united people, a positive community and support of science and technology from the international community can together achieve, was up for all to see. Pulling out 33 miners alive from 700 metres or 2,000 feet below the earth, 69 days after a rockfall trapped them in the tunnel, in an operation that could have cost over 10 million dollars, will surely go down in human history as nothing short of the triumph of the human spirit. In fact the euphoria of such an achievement could for many even surpass the thrill of man first landing on the moon.

From the very first miner who came up at five minutes to midnight on Oct 13 to the last rescuer who came up at 20 minutes past midnight on Oct 14, the entire operation was picture perfect.

Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, who backed the rescue with his Mining Minister Laurence Golborne, reaped immediate political benefit. While the president’s popularity in the country went up from 56 to 70 percent, the mining minister’s popularity soared to 87 percent. The manner in which the miners were located 16 days after they had been trapped in the mine, the manner in which for the next 53 days they were kept nourished, their health parameters monitored as well as the air quality, the lifeline of contact with the outside world with TV screens, cameras and other communication tools and finally the breakthrough when Plan B shaft reached them - all that was an amazing feat. The help provided by US space agency NASA was invaluable.

“It has been a very humbling experience for us - we have realised the value of commitment - the miners have given us huge faith, unity,” President Pinera told the BBC in an interview.

Headed by a conservative government whose president is one of the three billionaire presidents in the world (Berlusconi and Asif Ali Zardari being the other two according to reports), Chile’s inequality index, the gini co-efficient, is at 57. There are many challenges of inequality, regional disparities and indigenous rebellion like that of the Mapuche.

As I watched the amazing rescue operations on BBC and CNN, I had to resign myself sadly to the fact that such a scenario would never have played out if miners in India had got trapped in a similar circumstance.

My having gone down into the Champion Reef in the Kolar Gold Fields with miners to cover mining stories in the past has brought me up close to the wretched and dangerous conditions that they worked in to extract gold for our country. The Champion Reef mine in KGF is the world’s second deepest mine, going down to 3.2 km. Rock blasts, air blasts and fires have killed many miners in KGF since the British started operations in a systematic way in 1850.

In 2004 when the mines finally closed there was hardly any sympathy forthcoming from our political class towards the fourth generation miners whose livelihood had suddenly been snatched from them. At the time of closing KGF had about a 3,800-strong workforce and around 200,000 people were dependent on the mining activities in some way or another in KGF. “Little England” - as the KGF mining town was known - fell from India’s map and the miners were simply forgotten. The suffering of the KGF miners has been documented in newspaper reports, television stories and documentary films.

I have personally seen girl children as young as five years old working on surface iron ore open cast mines in Bellary in Karnataka. Academics have noted that women and children are the worst exploited, and among them tribal and Dalit women, in India’s mines. It is estimated that in the age group of 5 to 14, females form 40 percent of the workforce.

At a National Consultation on Impacts of Mining on Women in India held in Orissa in February this year, the findings from a national-level study on the problems of and impact on women affected by mining activities in India were presented. Case studies from five states - Orissa, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh - which included experiences from the alumina plant area in Niyamgiri in Orissa, coal mine projects in Hazaribagh, iron ore mines in Karnataka and Maharastra and dolomite and limestone mining in Orissa, reflected concerns about low wages, mine accidents, health problems, poor living conditions and pollution of the environment.

The rot in the Indian mining industry runs deep - and where is the political will to clean up the act?

Already there are murmers in social media after the Chile rescue from Chinese people that their government does not do enough for miners in their country. The accident rate in China’s coal mines is said to be the highest in the world.

The San Jose mine rescue has shown that science and technology has unbridled power to help modern society. Satellite imagery is useless if we cannot predict that there is going to be a flood in our country or neighbouring Bangladesh or Pakistan (it is more difficult to predict earthquakes) and that we should share this imagery so that we can minimise human suffering.

The script is there for all to emulate from San Jose. It will depend which governments will be inspired.

(Nupur Basu is an independent journalist, documentary filmmaker and media educator. She can be contacted at

Filed under: Accidents and Disasters

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