Working in darkness, with danger lurking by in the form of a poisonous gas or a water aquifer, which might be let loose on impact. This is the danger that every coal miner walks into, or rather, descends into.
The coal miners of Raniganj in West Bengal are no different. But, in November 1989, 64 of them ended up getting trapped in the mine. Six of them were instantly killed. It looked like the odds were not in these coal miners’ favor. However, what follows is a rescue mission that is worthy of a movie.
In fact, Akshay Kumar has announced that the Raniganj Rescue Mission is indeed going to be his next venture!
Akshay’s choice isn’t surprising, since his last two releases of 2016, Rustom and Airlift, were inspired by real life people or events and had a touch of nationalistic fervour. Airlift especially had the element of incredible rescue from a perilous situation, which is also resonant in the Raniganj incident.
Raniganj coalmine was the first Indian coal mine, which opened in 1774 after a John Sumner and Suetonius Grant Heatly of the British East India Company acquired a license for mining activities. The mine was nationalized in 1974 and the Coal Mines Authority of India took over. Hence, the Raniganj Rescue Mission was not a story of a private company trying to rescue its miners, but a story of a nation, which was poor, grappling with low growth-rate and on the verge of opening its doors to the world.
On that fateful day, when the 220 coal miners working the night shift realized that one of their coal wall blasts had cracked the underground water table, all they could do was run.
Working closest to the lift shaft, 149 miners were quickly pulled out. Six were killed while 64 lodged themselves into crevices and cavities to escape the onslaught of the water, reports Telegraph. One man swam in the dark for 36 hours straight to reach the lift!
No sooner the incident reached the ears of the authorities, the resuce operation began. Since the 64 people were spread across six different locations, six holes were drilled after referring the mine-map. Walkie-talkies to communicate with the trapped miners, along with food and water, were lowered into the mine. A rescue capsule was made from steel and iron, which was then lowered into the mine with the help of a make-shift pulley and one by one each of the miners were brought up, like water from a well.
Though this was a joint effort, one man stands out from the rest: Engineer Jaswant Singh Gill who was the Additional Chief Mining Engineer of Coal India Limited. He volunteered to go into the mine, where he would open the door of the capsule, help the nearest miner to get into the capsule and then signal the people above to pull the capusle.
He stayed there until each one of the miners was pulled out, despite protests from the state-owned company, which did not want to lose one of its high-ranking officer.
Jaswant Singh Gill was later awareded Sarvottam Jeevan Raksha Padak in 1991 and Bhagat Singh Puran award for service to humanity last year. No points for guessing the protagonist of Akshay Kumar’s film!
The Raniganj mine, which provided 88% of the country’s coal in the 19th century, now only provides less than a tenth of India’s total coal production, according to India Today. While Raniganj has been relegated to the pages of history, the story of the Raniganj rescue mission is one that will live on as a testimony of the strength of a people poor in wealth but rich in resolve.