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In abode of the clouds, coal sparks livelihood versus ecology debate

Jostina Dkhar lost her sons in the mine mishap.  

Jostina Dkhar, 40, fears the day the interim relief she received for her dead son Dimonme gets exhausted. Her elder son Melambok lies buried deep inside a flooded rat-hole coal mine at Ksan, about 21 km from her village Lumthari in Meghalaya’s East Jaintia Hills district.

The 20-year-old Dimonme’s decomposed body was one of the two retrieved from the Ksan mine, where at least 15 miners have been trapped since December 31 last year. Multiple agencies have since been extracting water from a network of coal pits in a bid to retrieve the bodies, but the water level has hardly changed.

Ksan, or Khloo Ryngksan, and Lumthari are within Sutnga-Saipung, one of the 36 Assembly segment of the mineral-rich Shillong Lok Sabha constituency, from where Congress MP Vincent Pala is seeking a victory for the third straight term.

The ailing Ms. Dkhar, whose husband abandoned her 10 years ago, wishes she knew a trade to sustain and educate her two minor daughters. Her family has been too dependent on coal — almost an illicit commodity in the region since April 2014 when the National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned rat-hole mining — while effluents from the mines poisoned the farmlands around.

She is unaware that the plight of families like hers has become an issue for debate ahead of the election to Meghalaya’s two Lok Sabha seats scheduled for April 11.

The other seat is Tura, which is witnessing the battle of the Sangmas — National People’s Party (NPP) candidate and former Union Minister Agatha Sangma versus former Chief Minister Mukul Sangma of the Congress.

“This election is happening in the backdrop of one of the worst mining tragedies,” said Jemino Mawthoh, a former MLA and the United Democratic Party (UDP) candidate for Shillong. “People in Meghalaya have been mining coal for ages but thousands of them suddenly are without a source of livelihood. Something needs to be done but at the same time, we need a mechanism that ensures protection of the environment,” he added.

Mr. Mawthoh was a Professor of sociology at the North Eastern Hill University.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate for Shillong, Sanbor Shullai, too has sought a “fine balance” between livelihood and ecology. The BJP had in the manifesto for the Assembly poll in February 2018 promised to find a solution to the mining issue within 180 days.

Mr. Pala, who owns 24 sq km of coal mines and has batted for regulated mining, finds the NGT ban unfair to Meghalaya. “The type of mining here is dictated by the terrain,” he said.

Chief Minister and NPP president Conrad K. Sangma believes that the ban is not the solution as people have been mining for more than a century. “I want the ban to be lifted, but the system has to change to ensure safety of miners and protect the environment,because of which we exist,” he said.

At a rally in the State’s South Garo Hills district, he panned his predecessor Mukul Sangma for failing to challenge the NGT order in 2014. This, he said, led to a fiscal crisis in Meghalaya, where the average annual revenue from coal was ₹600 crore prior to the ban.

“It is not only about coal,” said green activist Brian Kharpran Daly. “Indiscriminate limestone mining too is killing the land and rivers of Meghalaya. Underground caves, a major tourist attraction, are getting damaged. The hills have suffered a lot, and there is no political will to stem the rot, let alone undo the damage,” he added.

A case in point is the Meghalaya Environment Protection and Restoration Fund set up, as per the NGT’s direction, with contributions from coal miners, traders and transporters. The State government has collected ₹433 crore so far, but is yet to put it to use.

After the withdrawal of a CPI candidate on Thursday, nine candidates would be vying for the Shillong seat and four for the Tura seat.

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Printable version | Nov 29, 2020 2:24:28 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/elections/lok-sabha-2019/in-abode-of-the-clouds-coal-sparks-livelihood-versus-ecology-debate/article26704571.ece

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