As the country’s largest employer and among the worst hit by the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, state-run miner Coal India Ltd. (CIL) has shot off an SOS to the federal government seeking an allotment of 1 million doses of vaccine for its workers and families.

CIL, with 259,000 workers on its payroll, has been among the worst hit by the pandemic’s second wave with the official death toll of 400 and 6,000 cases of hospitalization. Trade union officials, however, put the death toll from the virus among CIL workers above 500.

India’s second wave of the pandemic peaked on May 5, when daily new cases crossed the 400,000 mark and death toll peaked at 4,529 on May 17.

It might be noted that coal mining has been designated an “essential service” since the start of the pandemic last year and production continued unabated with coal accounting for 70% of total power generation in the country. Despite coal mining being an essential service, coal miners have not been “designated as frontline workers” entitling them to priority vaccinations as in the case of workers in the health care and pharmaceutical sectors.

Trade unions representing CIL workers have communicated to the federal government seeking designation as “frontline workers,” which would enable them to get vaccinated on a priority basis at a time when the country is facing a shortage of jabs.

Even with the pandemic raging since early April, CIL achieved production of 41.7 million metric tons (mt) at the peak of the second wave in May, compared to 41.43 million mt in the corresponding month of the previous year and sales of 55 million mt in May, up from 40 million mt in the corresponding month of the previous year.

However, it is not yet clear how the government can allocate vaccines to a specific industrial sector under its existing policy. As per the revised guidelines for the allocation of vaccines announced recently, the federal government would purchase 75% of total vaccines produced by domestic companies and allocate them to various states based on respective population and free distribution, while the balance of 25% is to be procured by various hospitals directly from vaccine makers. Hence, there is no provision at present for the government to allocate vaccines to specific corporate entities or industrial sectors.

However, state governments are empowered to frame necessary “sub-rules” designating workers as “frontline workers” and offer them free jabs on a priority basis.

“The company should be looking at mass vaccination programs that cover all employees and their family members so that the damage can be arrested,” said Sudhir Ghurde, a trade union leader.

To date, CIL has been able to vaccinate just 64,000 employees, partially or fully, or about 25% of its
total workforce.

According to government data, as of June 9, India has administered at least one dose of vaccine to 230 million or about 14% of the country’s population.