In one of the long mines of Khewra, Maqsood Hussain, 48, along with five other coworkers drills and excavates salt for eight hours a day. He works six days a week.
When Mr Hussain filled his father’s shoes two decades ago he would earn Rs50 by excavating one ton of salt. Now he earns Rs350 by excavating the same quantity.
He is the member of a group which consists of six miners. These six miners jointly excavate 12 tons of salt on a daily basis which means one miner earns Rs700. They earn an extra money by loading the salt on a tractor-trolley.
Mr Hussain is a third-generational miner at Khewra.
“I am quite satisfied with my work as I not only get a handsome wage but am also given other facilities such as free of cost treatment for myself and my family members.”
Khewra salt mines are the world’s oldest and second largest and produce 450,000 tons of salt annually; 99pc salt produced here is edible.
“Pink salt, which is of high quality, is the most sought-after variety and is produced in abundance at Khewra,” said Malik Mohammad Naeem, a mining manager.
Though many countries have developed modern techniques, the miners in Khewra still use the old traditional way — drilling/blasting followed by excavation by hand
He said 1,200 tons of salt was supplied to a nearby plant. Behind this massive mineral activity lies a highly organised and well-managed manpower of which the pivotal role is played by the miners.
“There are 686 miners currently registered with the Pakistan Minerals Development Corporation (PMDC) who are working at Khewra salt mines while 10pc miners are not registered as they are those who occasionally work with the registered miners,” said Chaudhry Irfan Ahmad, the chief mining engineer.
“These are third and some even fourth generational miners whose forefathers were the first to start mining in the 1870s.”
When the British decided to develop the salt mines in 1872, they chalked out a plan. To get the labour force, they brought 30 different families from 14 tribes from adjacent villages to Khewra salt mines and relocated all the members of these 30 families at Khewra.
“The current 686 miners are the progeny of those 30 families,” added Mr Naeem. Though mining is considered as one of the toughest forms of labour and in Pakistan there are violations of labour laws the miners in Khewra look content with their work.
“Being a miner I have managed to give higher education to my children. My daughter has done MSc in chemistry and one of my sons is currently pursuing his BBA and another is doing engineering,” said Mahar Hassan Mehmood, who joined mining in 1988.
“Had I not been given incentives by the PMDC and the Punjab Labour Welfare Department I would never have been able to give quality education to my children.”
Mohammad Yasin, who is a fourth generational miner, joined mining in 1985. He said whenever a miner or his family member falls ill, there are two ambulances which remain at a standby.
“There is a separate hospital for us in Khewra and another one in nearby Choa Saidan Shah. If a patient is in a serious condition, they can be referred to the CMH or MH Rawalpindi.”
Good wages and plenty of facilities are the key reasons behind the contentment of these miners.
The miners are divided into 30 gangs each of which is headed by one person who is called a gang man. Each gang contains 20 to 30 members and is allotted a certain portion in the mining area.
Low expressive gunpowder is used in blasting which helps in the excavation.
“If there are four brothers at one house, one will be working as a miner,” said Malik Mohammad Naeem. The miners work on the daily wage basis and one miner can earn Rs1,500 a day.
The workers who load salt onto tractor-trolleys and dealers who transport the salt to other cities belong to Khewra and are fourth generational.
“Registered miners are given different incentives promised in the law. We provide them free of cost treatment as PMDC has signed contracts with different hospitals,” said Mr Naeem.
He said Rs40,000 as marriage grant was also given for the daughters of the registered miners while a miner’s heirs are given Rs500,000 in case of an incidental death of the miner.
Though many countries have developed modern techniques, the miners in Khewra still use the same old traditional way – drilling/blasting followed by excavation by hand – even after 136 years.
Perhaps this is the reason that despite having the second largest salt mines of the world and having salt reservoirs of 10 billion tons (6.68 billion tons alone hidden in the jagged rocks of Salt Range in Khewra), Pakistan is still listed as 20th in salt production in the world. It contributes hardly one percent in the total global salt production.
“Modern method is the need of the hour which could increase the production of salt,” said an official.
But the miners in Khewra fear that the modern method of mining could put their job at stake.