Friday, 6 March 2015

At the Coalface

The lift shafts at Barapukuria Coal Mine.

Dhaka, Khulna, Rangpur and Barisal: Mr. Zhang likes to travel. “Bangladesh is poor,” he says, interpreted from Mandarin, “but people are very honest, especially in the northern villages.”

As a Buddhist, Mr. Zhang believes in reincarnation. According to him, everything in this life is the outcome of a previous life. Something in his previous life brought him to Bangladesh this time around.

Office buildings at the mine.

The office buildings at his workplace are white tiled on the outer walls, with blue tiled angular eaves to break the monotony of a flat roof. The driveway, like the exterior of the stairwells, is circular. There’s a garden with neatly trimmed hedges. It could be any random factory office in industrial China except it isn’t. Mr. Zhang works as an engineer at Barapukuria Coal Mine in Dinajpur’s Parbatipur, and has done for a decade.

“I mostly speak to local colleagues in English,” he says, “but with the help of books and audio material I also learnt some Bangla. In Bangla it’s interesting how when people introduce how many siblings they have they include themselves in the number.”

Garden in front of the office.
Barapukuria is run by Chinese contractors. It’s unsurprising that the canteen serves Chinese fare and that signs commonly feature Mandarin characters. What’s more interesting is the mosque built for local workers in a similarly Chinese style, with white tiles and blue trim.

“At the core,” says Mr. Zhang, “all religions are the same.”

Barapukuria offices.

The Barapukuria gateway has seen better days.

Coal mining is a risky business and Barapukuria has not been a project free of controversy. Some risks are inherent: opening a new coal face where the air may contain carbon monoxide or methane, where temperatures can be high or a sudden inrush of water may occur.

Despite planning that currently includes the services of a British consultant, Barapukuria has suffered from land subsidence affecting surrounding farmlands; locals have complained of adverse impact on the water table; and some years ago workers went on strike.

The main entrance. The mine thinks it's a tea plantation.

There was also an underground flooding disaster that has since resulted in refined safety measures, put in place one hundred metres ahead of the drilling; and a concrete wall being constructed along the northern side at significant cost, to prevent further waterlogging.

The lift shaft.
There have also been issues with compensating and relocating villagers on whose former land the mine sits; though according to management most of these issues have since been settled.

Yet Barapukuria provides over 1000 jobs at the mine and a further 300 plus for Chinese workers; and it provides much needed coal for the country, most of which is used in electricity generation at the nearby power plant. Of national significance, not only does Barapukuria restrict the need for imports but due to its low-sulphur content the local rock is less polluting in power generation than the most-common, Indian, substitute.

From the surface, the first level of the mine is 293 metres down, sitting at 260 metres below sea level. From there, 1.5 kilometres of roadway and train track tunnels slope to a final depth of 430 metres below sea level.

Father-of-two Md Atiur Rahman, 30, from Mashpur, a village one kilometre from the mine, takes the lift down into the mine every workday. He’s been with the mine for nine years. “I had no work before,” he says, “We only have one bigha of land so life was hard.”

Local miner, Md. Atiur Rahman.

Underground, Rahman is responsible for constructing the beams and legs of wood along the tunnel that provide safety support. It’s a risky position because the new sections of tunnel are often hot and hold the greatest chance of roof cave-in.

Due to the risks his wife wants him to find another job, and there was a time when Rahman was scared underground, with fears of falling in the dark. But with years of experience “there is no time for fear,” he says, and although it’s hard work the mine enables him to manage his family’s finances.

Local miners attract a monthly salary of 9000 taka with 20 kilograms of rice grain and bonuses. There are four six-hour shifts per day.

The lift into the mine.
Rahman’s colleague Kabirul Islam, 33, has been working at the mine for eight years. “I like it when we get through our work quickly,” he says. The miners are given a task for each shift and if they complete it in three to four hours rather than six they return to the surface early.

He’s not scared anymore – the fear gradually left him in his first few months. But still, when leaving home of a morning he does sometimes wonder if he will ever see it again.

In 2009 seventeen miners were trapped by a cave in and one Ranjeet Chandra Roy died. “Those working at the coalface have the biggest risk,” says Islam.

Miner Kabirul Islam, after finishing a shift underground.

Miners in the lift.

Shift over.
Coal train engine.
Miners at the end of a shift.

Miners pose for the camera.

About cooperating with his Chinese colleagues, Islam says local miners have learnt to understand some Mandarin. “Kem cha means ‘train’,” says Islam. The word for train in Mandarin is actually ‘hǔo chē’ but in a tunnel with the sounds of a coal mine going on and a train quite possibly approaching at the time of use, ‘kem cha’ undoubtedly suffices.

Mr. Li, 'Om', looking busy while we chat.
Like Mr. Zhang and most Chinese miners, Mr. Li, locally called by the nickname ‘Om,’ is from the city of Suzhou in Jiangsu Province. For five years he’s worked at Barapukuria and in very basic Bangla and English he praises the skill of some of the managers.

But he misses his native cuisine. “Some of the Chinese food here is good,” he says, “but the variety is limited.” To supplement, miners have taken to growing Chinese vegetables on land beside their quarters. As can be expected, Mr. Li misses his one-year-old daughter and family who he sees only on visits home every six months.

Life at Barapukuria is strenuous and not without risk. Yet despite the hardships Bangladeshi and Chinese miners manage to cooperate in bringing the underground wealth of Bangladesh to the surface and into use. “External forces are not issues,” says Mr. Zhang. “What matters is internal attitude, which can turn any challenge into an opportunity and bring good fortune. Good deeds make for happy endings.”

With thanks to Ms. Olivia Qu for interpreting from Mandarin.

Bangladeshi miners at Barapukuria.

Barapukuria landscape.

Chinese miners at Barapukuria.

Mine landscape.

As the canteen (not pictured above) serves Chinese fare...

...sometimes the Bangladeshi office staff prefer the tea shop. And who could blame them?


  1. I get the sense that relationships between the Bangladesh miners and the Chinese is a harmonious one, despite the ramshackle looking canteen outside the pristine office building. I like your wry comment Andrew, about the mine thinking it's a tea garden.

  2. The word is that relations between the Bangladeshi and Chinese miners were not always harmonious, but that they are good these days. The ramshackle building is a tea shop, not the canteen which is nicely built. Tea shops are a particularly Bengali thing. They are supposed to be ramshackle, and it is not built by the mine authority but by a local person. I think it's interesting the Bengali administrators can't live without their tea shop, local style... particularly as the canteen serves Chinese food which they might not wish to eat every day. Mostly they bring lunch from home, I guess... tea shop is for snacks and adda (chatting).

    1. Ha... I just realised the photo caption for the tea shop is confusing. Sorry about that.