On 27 December 1975, workers deep inside a coal mine at Chasnala, around 30km from Dhanbad, turned up for work, wading through water. Water seepage can be a major safety concern in mines. Walls can collapse without warning and kill dozens in a flash. The mine at Chasnala was particularly vulnerable. It sat next to an old, abandoned mine that tended to fill up with rain water. All that stood between the miners in the new worksite and the reservoir in the old was a thin barrier of rock and coal.

Shortly after Independence, and the nationalisation of coking coal mines, the public sector Indian Iron and Steel Co. (IISCO) had approached the World Bank for funds to develop the new mine at Chasnala. At the time IISCO appointed a panel of foreign experts to study the mine and its feasibility.

The experts signed off on the new project with two important pointers. First, they said, everything possible should be done to prevent water from accumulating in the old mine. And second, the barrier between the two mines was to be left untouched.

Subsequent newspaper reports suggest that the managers of the Chasnala mine ignored both warnings. Water was allowed to accumulate in the old workings, and permission was sought and received to mine the barrier.

At around 1.30 pm on 27 December there was an explosion and 110 million gallons of water gushed into the new mine. To this day there is disagreement about what exactly happened under the ground. This is because not one of the 372 miners in Chasnala survived to tell us. Every single one of them died. And if they didn’t die from the initial flooding, they surely drowned afterwards.

This is because the official response to the accident was a complete and utter shambles. Several senior officers fled the scene immediately. Pumps didn’t arrive for many hours. And when they did, they were found to be grossly inadequate. Over the next few days pumps would even have to be imported from the US and Russia.

Contemporary reports say only one intact body was ever found. Some remains could only be identified by the numbers on their helmets. Most were never found.

Relatives begged Chandrajit Yadav, the then mines minister, to do something for their men. Yadav is reported to have asked them to pray to god.

Later, news emerged that many months before the tragedy a prescient report by the Central Mining Research Station had warned of an inundation at Chasnala. This warning had been ignored.

Unsurprisingly, reports from Chasnala told of a culture of lax procedure, inadequate safety equipment and insensitive management.

Also there were whispers that the death toll had been under-reported. That the official number of 372 only took into account full-time workers, and ignored another 130 contract labourers.

At the time the Chasnala mine tragedy was the worst industrial accident in independent Indian history. (It would inspire the Amitabh Bacchan starrer Kaala Patthar.)

Chasnala’s toll was surpassed, nine years later, by the Bhopal gas tragedy—the worst industrial accident not just in India but anywhere.

All this week there has been some excellent reportage and analysis to mark the 30th anniversary of the gas leak at the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, and the numerous, deliberate, lesser man-made injustices that have followed it.

Numerous questions have been raised. Why was Warren Anderson allowed to go? Has anyone been punished? Has justice been done to the victims and their families? Why have we let this American company treat Indian lives like dirt?

But wait. Wait for a moment, and think about Chasnala. In March 1977 former Bihar chief justice U.N. Sinha submitted a government report on the Chasnala tragedy. Based on this report criminal charges were filed against four IISCO officials. Legal proceedings began.

These proceedings did not end soon. Not after five or 10 or 15 years. No, my dear reader. Judgement was passed on this case on 16 March 2012, a full thirty-seven years after the inundation. By this time two of the four accused had passed away. The other two, both very old men now, were sentenced to a year in person and a fine of 5,000 each. Both were then let out on bail pending appeal.

But the agony for the loved ones did not end there.

In December 2012 the Times of India carried a brief report on a memorial service held at Chasnala to the dead. According to this report many of the next of kin are yet to receive jobs promised to them, as compensation, by the public sector company. Many relatives of the dead miners alleged corruption, and that these jobs have been given away to other people.

The real tragedy, then, is not that gas leaks out of tanks or that waters flood into mines or that administrators function with brutal inhumanity. The real tragedy is that our country, the largest democracy in the world, has a pathological inability to deliver justice. Instead it gradually grinds its victims to dust, offering them neither the partial comfort of recompense nor the meagre solace of closure.

Every week, Déjà View scours historical research and archives to make sense of current news and affairs.

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