About 30% of the 374 candidates in the Meghalaya Assembly elections scheduled for February 27 are either owners of mines or have stakes in the largely unregulated coal mining and transportation industry.
That explains why the ban on rat-hole mining by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in April 2014 and restrictions on limestone extraction — are major poll issues in four of Meghalaya’s 11 districts.
The campaign in the State and Nagaland ended on Sunday.
16 crucial seats
The coal and limestone belts in these four districts and a part of a fifth account for 16 of the State’s 60 seats. The ban has affected the local economy and the lives of some 2.5 lakh people dependent on the sector, though green activists claim coal and limestone are being mined and transported clandestinely.
The BJP, in a bid to capitalise on the “resentment” against the Congress-led coalition government for “not doing enough” to combat the ban, has promised a permanent solution within 180 days of forming the next government in the State.
“The Mukul Sangma government not only failed to address the issue but also took three years to submit a mining policy, underscoring a lack of commitment,” Nalin Kohli, BJP’s in-charge for Meghalaya, said.
Mr. Sangma’s pet constituency, Ampati, is in the coal mining district of South Garo Hills. His wife Dikkanchi D Shira, seeking to retain the Mahendraganj seat for the Congress, owns a coal mine.
‘Cong. has abdicated’
The contention of the BJP as well as the National People’s Party (NPP), a major regional force, is that Mr. Sangma’s Congress could have used Meghalaya’s status as a Sixth Schedule State to get the NGT ban lifted.
“People of Meghalaya largely depend on coal but the State government under Mr. Sangma’s leadership failed to let mining resume,” NPP chief Conrad Sangma has said at rallies in Chokpot and Mawshynrut, two coal-rich constituencies.
The anger is most apparent in the East Jaintia Hills where most of the candidates are coal mine owners or are backed by them. The district, bordering Bangladesh, has two constituencies — Khliehriat, arguably the hub of mining activities in Meghalaya, and Sutnga-Saipung.
“In Meghalaya, people own land, not the government for imposition of bans. But the Mukul government could invoked Para 12 A(b) of the Sixth Schedule that would enable the President of India to exempt Meghalaya from the provisions of central mining laws,” Justine Dkhar, the BJP’s candidate for the Khliehriat seat, said.
Mr Dkhar had won the seat as an independent in 2013, but joined the BJP after being assured of a lenient coal mining policy> the industry was worth ₹400 crore annually at its peak.
In the adjoining Sutnga-Saipung constituency, the top three contenders — the NPP’s Hopeful Bamon, who had won the seat in 2013 as an independent, BJP’s Hambertus Nongtdu and Shitlang Pale of Congress — all have stakes in coal mining.
The Congress meanwhile has accused rivals of distorting facts. “NGT had banned illegal coal mining in view of its effect on environment and health, not coal mining as a whole,” Mukul Sangma had said earlier.
The State’s Lok Sabha member and lead Congress campaigner, Vincent Pala said it would be wrong to say his party was blind towards the hardship faced by those associated with coal and limestone mining. “The Congress is no less concerned than the others,” he said.