On November 13, 1989, as miners of Mahabir colliery of Eastern Coalfield Limited in Raniganj area of West Bengal were breaking coal walls by triggering blasts, the wall of an underground water table adjacent to where they were working, cracked. The water gushed in. Of the 220 miners working at the site, six lost their lives. Those closest to the lift were quickly pulled out, but 64 miners remained trapped inside.
Jaswant Singh Gill was posted as the Additional Chief Mining Engineer there. Without giving it a second thought, he decided to go into the mine and save the trapped men as soon as he came to know about them.
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Image for representation only. Source: Biswarup Ganguly [GFDL, CC BY 3.0, GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
A rescue mission was planned. First, the authorities tried to use pumps to reduce the water level inside the mine. When this didn’t prove too effective, they drilled multiple bore wells to communicate with the miners and to send them food and drinking water. And finally, they drilled another well to send a rescue capsule to pull them out. A 2.5 m tall steel capsule was fabricated on the spot. It was attached to a crane to be lowered into the pit. Jaswant, who was trained in rescue procedures, volunteered to bring the miners back up. He went ahead with his decision despite protests from the authorities on site who didn’t want to risk the life of a senior officer. After being lowered into the pit, he opened the door of the capsule, helped in the first person he could find and signalled to have the capsule raised. He stayed there until every single miner was pulled out. He came out only at the end of the six-hour ordeal. As he finally stepped out of the capsule he was greeted by scores of onlookers who erupted into celebratory applause and carried him on their shoulders.
Two years later, in 1991, Jaswant was honoured with the Sarvottam Jeevan Raksha Padak by the then President Ramaswamy Venkataraman. Coal India also honoured him with a lifetime achievement award. And now, on September 23, he will receive the Bhagat Singh Puran award for service to humanity at the annual Baba Farida heritage festival.
Jaswant now lives in Amritsar. “You only get one life, you need to make it count…Everything happened so suddenly that no one had the time to think. When I got to know that miners were still trapped inside the coal mine, I told the chairman of Coal India, who was present there, that I was going inside,” he told The Tribune.