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Day 93: Digboi, Assam

Michael Palin - HimalayaSidestepping any further questions about security with a brisk 'there is some insurgency', Mr Das clambers onto the safer ground of statistics. In quick succession, I learn that India is the fourth largest producer of coal in the world (after the USA, Russia and Australia) but the biggest employer (600,000 people), that Tipong produces a particularly valuable high calorie coal, that they have had no fatal injuries of any kind since 1994, when nine were killed after an electrician tried to mend an electrical motor without turning the current off, that, instead of shafts and lifts, the miners here walk to work down inclined passageways that reach 1150 feet (350 m) below the surface. The only shadow over Tipong is that they only have technology to bring out 40 per cent of the coal deposits. The rest they have to leave in the ground.

What really animates him is an obvious and glowing pride in his labour relations. Tipong has a cosmopolitan workforce, from South India, Nepal, Orissa, Bihar, comprising Muslims, Christians and Hindus, but everyone looks after everyone else and they provide schools and communal activities for everyone equally. Women who are widows of company employees are offered surface jobs.

David's wheezy whistle announces that the 140-year-old tank engine is coupled up and ready to leave for the depot two miles down the line. I'm privileged to ride the footplate as we bowl gamely down the hill past lineside exhortations like 'All Time is Safety Time' and 'There is no Substitute for Hard Work and Sincerity'.

We cross the river on a girder bridge with elegantly functional red-brick piers bearing a construction date of 1923. The line levels out. Bicycles overtake us easily. Goats and chickens stroll by. The fireman doesn't so much toss coal into the boiler but places it there by hand, positioning each piece carefully before ramming it home with a metal rod. Once away from the cleared area of the mine, the jungle closes in and David has his work cut out to push us past overhanging branches and bushes. It's an enchanting run, a blend of Thomas the Tank Engine and The Jungle Book.
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  • Series: Himalaya
  • Chapter: Day 93: Digboi, Assam
  • Country/sea: India
  • Place: Digboi
  • Book page no: 218

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