EDITORIAL: The government responded as best as it could to the horrible mine collapse in Mohmand, which has killed more than 20 workers, even though the opposition still feels that it was too slow in responding. But it would be better if it does whatever is necessary to make sure that such needless tragedies are never repeated. The main problem with our mining industry is its reliance on old and outdated technology. Whether it is because mine owners shy away from spending the money needed for upgrade to 21st century technology and modern practices, or exports are good enough as they are and they just don't feel the need for anything better, they have for the longest time resisted all reform like the plague. And, not very surprisingly, every now and then the result is out there for everybody to see. Monday's mine collapse in Mohmand was not an isolated incident but rather just another one in a long chain of all sorts of disasters that mine owners themselves seem bent upon inviting by refusing even to improve safety standards and implement proper labour laws, if nothing else.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Minister for Labour and Culture Shaukat Yousafzai has assured, in the aftermath of the tragedy of course, that the provincial government is already taking steps to modernise the mining industry on scientific lines precisely to minimise risk to human lives. But, considering how such statements from responsible ministers and other officials are just as common as mining disasters themselves, perhaps the KP government should come up with something more concrete and quantifiable to prove its case that it is very different from corrupt dispensations of the past. Hopefully, all the different departments at work on the site, including the army, will be able to dig out more people from under the rubble in time to save their lives. But the really worrying thing is that once the rescue operation is over and all the affected families have been financially compensated - if such a thing is possible - workers in this field will go right back to the same ancient, appalling working conditions. Miners in these parts carry out their business by dynamiting to loosen the structure, which is not only an obvious hazard but in the case of something like marble also blows up a good share of the limestone and reduces it to dust. Then they prefer to ship out the raw marble rather than take the trouble of adding any value to the product before putting it on the market.
Regardless of what the KP government is or isn't doing about the mining industry, it is time for everybody involved in the business, from owners to policymakers, to solve this recurring problem once and for all. How long, after all, will the government turn a blind eye to the outmoded and outdated practice employed in the industry, especially considering the impact it is having on human lives? And how long, for a government obsessed with increasing exports and revenue, before we turn our attention towards upgrading our exports to improve our chances of earning more foreign exchange? This marble, just like everything else that is mined, must be extracted in the safest possible environment. Then, once it is safely out of the ground, it should be cut and polished here before being shipped out. And it's not just a matter of marbles, a lot of thought should be given towards value addition in everything we export. Our traditional basket, which mainly comprises textiles, agricultural produce, a little bit of leather, cereals, etc, will just not cut it in the present environment; not if export revenue is meant to play any significant part in our much needed economic turnaround.
The terrible mining tragedy at Mohmand should never have happened but now that it has, it is important not just to learn the right lessons from it but also act in the right manner. The responsibility of fixing this mess, from overhauling the entire mining industry to enacting and implementing labour laws, falls squarely on the government. It must now force this sector to get its act together and vitalise the link between it and exports. That way the country will be rid of a completely unnecessary problem and improve its revenue generating capability at the same time.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2020