As Akshay Kumar-starrer ‘Mission Raniganj’ gets set for a theatrical release on October 6, it is a moment of pride for all of us. The film, which has been directed by Tinu Suresh Desai and produced by Vashu Bhagnani, attempts to bring alive the incident of November 1989 in which my father’s ingenuity and quick thinking helped save the lives of 65 workers trapped in a coal mine of Raniganj area in West Bengal. Akshay plays the role of my father, Jaswant Singh Gill, whose name has been etched in the annals of mining history for this selfless act of bravery.
Born in Amritsar in 1940, my father grew up the tough way. As a young boy, he would get up before sunrise to go to the fields to collect fodder for the buffaloes in their small house. He did his matriculation from Khalsa School and took admission in BSc (non-medical) at Khalsa College. He was awarded the college colours in 1958 by the then Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon. He studied BSc (Honours) from the Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad. In 1973, when coal mining was nationalised, he joined Coal India Limited. He rose steadily in the ranks, from the grade of 1 to 9, retiring as Engineer-in-Chief in 1998.
On the morning of November 13, 1989, an accident took place in the Mahabir coal mine of Raniganj area in West Bengal. A sudden inflow of water from an upper stream due to human error left 65 miners trapped in a 320-foot-deep underground mine. Above the ground, four teams were formed to bring out the miners safely. While three teams were trying methods like excavation, entering the mine and dewatering, my father started to innovate on a theoretical idea that had never been put to practical use. It involved fabricating a steel capsule about 7 feet high and 22 inches in diameter, creating a new borehole to lower the capsule into the mine and taking out the miners, one by one.
Engineer Gill and his team worked tirelessly for 72 hours to make the capsule and bore the new hole to lower the pod. It was a fight against time, with the water level steadily rising and the oxygen level depleting fast. The soft earth, under which the miners had taken shelter, too, was fast subsiding. The borehole being unlined could stand only for 36 hours.
At 2.30 am on November 16, despite opposition from his senior officers, my father volunteered to enter the cramped capsule that was to be lowered with the help of a crane into the flooded mine. At 8.30 am, he emerged from the mine after sending out all trapped miners to safety. He got a hero’s welcome from the 20,000 persons who had gathered at the rescue site. The Chairman of Coal India said this brave act had etched the name of Er JS Gill in letters of gold in the annals of mining history.
Awards, rewards and accolades started pouring in. President R Venkataraman described it as a ‘saga of rescue’. He awarded the highest civilian bravery award, ‘Sarvottam Jeevan Raksha Padak’, to my father in 1991.
Even after his retirement, my father remained actively involved in social welfare. Till he passed away, he remained fit and alert. He played different roles with equal aplomb, including that of president of the Rotary Club of Amritsar; Professor (Mining) at Dr BR Ambedkar NIT, Jalandhar; member, Disaster Management Committee, Amritsar; besides managing our hospital, named Mahabir.
Though the film pays tribute to this brave act of my father, sadly he has not been recognised by the Punjab government.
— The writer is a medical practitioner
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