The perils of the system of rat-hole mining that thousands in Meghalaya routinely engage in were in stark focus over the past week. After a fruitless search that yielded no survivors or bodies in a flooded coal pit in the South Garo Hills, a rescue team of the National Disaster and Rescue Force has called off its operations. This means the 15 miners who were believed trapped underground are being given up as dead. It is the failure of the authorities to put in place a monitoring and regulatory mechanism that stands out in the wake of the accident. The miners, desperate to make a living, typically scramble into the shafts, crudely dug and so small that even kneeling is impossible inside. Lying horizontally, they hack away with pick-axes and their bare hands to extract the often sparse pickings. More shockingly, thousands of children, some under 10, toil alongside adults, their small bodies a perfect fit for the narrow seams. Many of the miners are migrants. Instances of death, from cave-ins and other accidents, are not always documented but are far from rare. Proximate facilities for medical care are nonexistent. In 2002, over 30 people died in a rat-hole pit in Meghalaya after it was flooded suddenly.

Meghalaya has no mining policy: minerals are extracted by individual operators at will. Miners use rudimentary gear, and among other risks face the black lung disease caused by the ingestion of coal dust. The mines operate in the manner of an unorganised cottage industry. Most land in Meghalaya is privately owned by tribal people, who as a matter of customary right exploit the coal present in their parcels. The villages located in the coal belt actually sit on a network of trenches dug beneath. It is not as if the practice, coyote hole mining as it was referred to in the Americas as it evolved from a 16th century Spanish system, is inherently unsound. Such inexpensive excavation was technologically simpler, and amenable to small-scale operation, compared to the large-scale industrial-corporate mining that emerged in the 19th century. Indeed, the low-tech approach was efficient in its own way, calling for excavations to follow the meanderings of ore seams. It may be neither possible nor advisable to move suddenly to end rat-hole mining in this region. Coal is Meghalaya’s biggest source of revenue. What is needed immediately is a scientifically sound regulatory mechanism to optimise yields and make the operation more efficient. Labour laws have to be enforced, worker safety and payment of fair wages ensured, and child labour of any kind has to be eliminated. The miners should be provided training and made aware of the risks, and put through safety drills.

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