Journey to the centre of the earth in an SUV

A first-hand account of a trip to Hindustan Zinc’s mine in Rajasthan

As we all know, many of the metals we use are dug out from mines underground. But how complex and intense a task it is to bring up the ore to the earth’s surface was brought home to me during a recent visit to one of Hindustan Zinc’s mines.

Hindustan Zinc’s various mines and smelting complexes are located in places around Udaipur, such as Chittorgarh, Bhilwara and Zawar. My trip was to the Sindesar Khurd underground mine and my companion was Sanjay Sharma, the manager of the mine that has been in operation for over 10 years and is two hours by road from Udaipur, Rajasthan.

Our journey started at the Hindustan Zinc office situated around 2 km from the mine. We were geared with an LED hat, portable oxygen generator, reflective jacket, goggles and boots, to face the rough conditions under the ground. A five-minute powerpoint presentation prepped us to deal with exigencies. Once we were deemed sufficiently ready to face the underground, we boarded a Mahindra Rexton SUV.

The entry to the mine was in a barren area, devoid of trees. Large mounds of waste ore dotted the landscape. I could see trucks moving around, ferrying the ore.

Road to the netherworld

The small mouth of the mine was covered by a shed. The path that took us down was broad enough to allow one large vehicle to pass and was well-lit. There were floodlights along the path and ventilation shafts on the top. The way to the mining area spiralled lower, in a gentle manner, with branches on either side that led to various mining sites.

Apart from the mining, what caught the eye was the slow movement of trucks taking the extracted ore from the mines to the surface. “All the vehicles are equipped with GPS devices for authentication and are tracked on a real-time basis,” said Sharma.

As we headed deep inside, the air inside the air-conditioned car didn’t seem enough and breathing felt heavy. Sharma assured me that we would get used to the atmosphere in a short while. The thought of the handy oxygen cylinder fortified me.

Air has to be continuously pumped into the underground mines for the safety of the workforce and for the proper functioning of the operations. Laxman Singh Shekhawat, Chief Operating Officer-Mines, said “the correct amount of air should be directed inside the mines. Not more, not less. Thanks to warmer climatic conditions in India, air need not be heated before being sent in through ventilation shafts.”

We finally went 600 metres below the earth’s crust. The walls were rocky with square marks that showed the places that needed to be drilled. As we stepped out of the SUV, the loud noise of the jumbo driller was deafening. The driller had an enclosed, sound-proof, air-conditioned cabin for its operator, who was too preoccupied to pay us any attention.

Sharma told us that “mining activities here are taken care of only by skilled workforce. As it is difficult to get skilled labour for mining in India, we hire employees first and train them using various means, including simulators.” Hindustan Zinc also taps expatriates from various countries for technical mining works.

Automation at play

While most of us imagine mine workers digging with crowbars underground, that is all passé. Now, explosives are inserted in the drilled holes and blasted to extract the ore. Mining activities that include bombing, drilling, etc, which were earlier done manually, are now mostly automated.

Sharma showed us a loader (that carries extracted ore): “This loader can be operated without the intervention of the operator by using certain programming. Various kinds of automation are helping us achieve accuracy and increased efficiency.”

A little ahead, there was a yellow rectangular metal chamber called a ‘refuge chamber’ which acts as a haven for the work force during any emergency in the underground. “Safety is our first priority. This refuge chamber is equipped to provide fresh breathing air and seven days of refreshments, which could be resorted to in case of any fire or leakage of hazardous gases inside the mines,” said Sharma. We also came across a small office and a place for workshops which made us wonder at the whole new world created underground. “We aim to use more automation using existing technologies and convert our facilities into ‘Smart’ mines (requiring less manual intervention),” said Sunil Duggal, CEO of Hindustan Zinc.

On the way back to the surface, Sharma switched off the car engine at a place where there were no mining operations, no floodlights, no ventilation shaft and no human presence. It was inky-black with silence that rang in the ears, speaking beyond words of the richness of the earth.

The writer visited the mine at the invitation of the company.