Fifteen miners have been trapped in a rat-hole coalmine near the Nangalbibra area in Meghalaya since Friday afternoon. It is suspected that water gushed in from an adjacent, flooded, abandoned mine as they accidentally punctured its wall, Director-General of Police N. Ramachandran told The Hindu, adding there was very little hope of anyone surviving.

There were 30 miners working in the mine. Fifteen of them managed to come out. Authorities of South Garo Hills district had been trying to pump out water for the past two days, the DGP said.

“The mine operator did not inform either the police or district authorities [of the incident]. We have registered a case under Section 304 (a) for negligent action and arrested the main operator.”

South Garo Hills Deputy Commissioner in-charge R.P. Marak said a magisterial probe was ordered even as efforts were on to rescue the miners. Two teams of the National Disaster Response Force were on the way to the site.

The DGP said the mine was located in a remote location and the condition of the road leading to it was bad. The coalmines are located at Rongsa Awe village, about 10 km from Nangalbibra.

Coalmining in most parts of Meghalaya is a manual operation, done indiscriminately and unscientifically. It is known as rat-hole mining as miners crawl inside a long tunnel and use implements to burrow in and extract coal. These rat-hole mines are privately owned.

In Meghalaya, land and resources are privately owned by local tribal communities and the State government has little control over this state of affairs.

Apart from safety hazards faced by miners, the rat-hole mines have given rise to serious environmental concern.

Another complaint is some of the mine owners and developers engage child workers.

When contacted, Deputy Chief Minister Bindo M. Lanong said the Meghalaya mining policy, which is in the final stage awaiting Cabinet approval, would ensure the safety of miners and protection of environment. The policy was aimed at introducing modern and scientific mining of coal and other mineral resources, Mr. Lanong, who holds the mining portfolio, said on the phone.

“Mine developers will be required to refill and redevelop the pits. The existing practice is to abandon the mining pits once the resources are fully extracted. Our effort will be to ensure that traditional miners are not disturbed as far as possible, but they will be encouraged and motivated to adopt scientific mining practices to ensure the safety of miners and environment,” he said.

On May 30, the National Human Rights Commission, at a daylong sitting in Shillong, directed the State Government to conduct a survey of mines to find out the number of child workers employed there and take measures for their schooling and rehabilitation. The NHRC asked the government to stop employment of child workers in mines and business establishments. The government informed it that 220 child workers, engaged in mining, were identified in Jaintia Hills.

The Commission suggested that the government exercise its jurisdiction and authority in controlling rampant mining. It should study the issue of mining from the point of view of bonded labour, environmental and health hazards and trafficking in and sexual exploitation of women, the NHRC said.

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