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In Meghalaya, where it took 15 deaths for the reality of illegal mining to hit hard

December 22, 2018 08:41 pm | Updated 08:47 pm IST

NDRF personnel engaged in rescue operation at the coal mine in Meghalaya's East Jaintia Hills district. File photo

NDRF personnel engaged in rescue operation at the coal mine in Meghalaya's East Jaintia Hills district. File photo

An ‘underground economy’ has for long been known to fuel Meghalaya’s politics. It has taken the collapse of a coal mine and – in all probability – the death of at least 15 miners for the reality of illegal mining to hit hard.

The accident on December 13, when the miners struck an aquifer leading to the flooding of a 370-foot mine, was the first after the National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned unscientific ‘rat-hole mining’ in the State on April 17, 2014.

Where is the mine?

The mine, about 130 km from the capital Shillong, is at Ksan near the river Lytein in the Saipung area of East Jaintia Hills, one of eight mining districts of the State.

The site is 48 km from where rights and anti-mining activist Agnes Kharshiing was assaulted a month ago for her campaign against illegal mining. East Jaintia Hills has a major share of an estimated coal reserve of 576 million tonnes in the State, which also has substantial deposits of limestone and other minerals. Much of the coal sent out of Meghalaya before the NGT ban was from this district. An assessment by a committee, constituted by the NGT, recorded the highest amount of extracted coal — 3.7 million tonnes of a total 6.5 million tonnes — in the State in September 2014.

What prompted the NGT ban?

The NGT ban, retained in 2015, followed a petition filed by the All Dimasa Students’ Union in Assam. The union had cited a study by O.P. Singh of the North Eastern Hill University that said mining in the coal belts and coal stockpiles in the Jaintia Hills areas were polluting rivers and streams flowing down to Assam’s Dima Hasao district, killing aquatic life and rendering the water unfit for drinking or irrigation. Apart from the ecological impact, the NGT observed that “there is umpteen number of cases where by virtue of rat-hole mining, during the rainy season, water flooded into the mining areas resulting in the death of many.” The trigger for the ban was the case of 15 miners trapped fatally inside a flooded mine in the South Garo Hills in July 2012. In between, a Shillong-based NGO filed a public interest litigation petition against illegal coal mining, claiming the rat-hole mines employed 70,000 child labourers. The government later said only 222 children were found working in the mines.


What is rat-hole mining?

Coal mining in Meghalaya, financed by businessmen from outside, took off commercially in the 1980s. Since much of the State’s land is community-owned, it was easy for the moneyed locals to purchase land and employ non-tribal labourers to burrow for maximum profit. Rat-hole mining, involving digging of tunnels 3-4 feet high, was the most preferred to strike at narrow coal seams deeper inside the hills.

The less dangerous of two methods of digging tunnels is side-cutting on the slopes. The other method entails digging a rectangular pit vertically to a depth of up to 400 metres. Rat-hole-sized tunnels are dug horizontally wherever the coal seams are found for the workers to crawl in and out. The NGT found these techniques unscientific and unsafe for workers.

Why does it continue?

Many who matter in Meghalaya own a coal mine or are associated with the trade. They include politicians, bureaucrats, police officers and extremists. In 2015, the State government said the ban would cost it ₹600 crore in revenue. The high stakes involved had made political parties promise reopen coal mines during the February Assembly election.

Chief Minister Conrad Sangma, earlier in denial mode, has admitted after the accident that illegal mining does happen. He has promised appropriate action but at the same time said mining activities are spread across too vast an area to monitor.

Activists are sceptical; on Thursday, an affidavit in the Meghalaya High Court pointed out that the prime accused in the mob attack on Ms. Kharshiing and her associate Amita Sangma was a leader of the ruling National People’s Party and there was no hope of a “meaningful investigation” because of a nexus among the coal mafia, the police and politicians.

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