Meghalaya’s coalmines are body disposal pits too

The dark depths of the mines, where few would dare to search, were turned into graves by criminals, says activist.

January 20, 2019 10:24 pm | Updated January 21, 2019 12:38 am IST - GUWAHATI

Sitting ducks:  Labourers at a coal mine in East Jaintia Hills district, Meghalaya.

Sitting ducks: Labourers at a coal mine in East Jaintia Hills district, Meghalaya.

All bodies in Meghalaya’s killer coalmines do not belong to miners, activists in the hill State said.

 

Thousands of active and abandoned rathole mines have for years been used by murderers to dump the body of their victims. Many across Meghalaya’s coal belts have accidentally fallen to their deaths too.

Most of the bodies deep inside the pits have been forgotten, buried under coal and rocks or – like the one detected by an underwater Navy robot in an illegal mine at Ksan in the State’s East Jaintia Hills (EJH) district – get decomposed due to high content of sulphur that is converted into acid after reaction with water.

At least 15 miners have been trapped due to flooding of the mine at Ksan since December 13. High-power pumps used by several agencies have not succeeded in draining out the water for 38 days now.

Only a few bodies of non-miners, activists said, have been recovered. They include that of 20-year-old Daphishisha Kharsati, who was murdered by her husband Kheinlang Dkhar in January 1, 2014.

Her decomposed body was exhumed almost three months later from an abandoned coalmine at Umtah near Jayliah village in EJH district.

Two years later, the district police arrested Michael Dkhar for raping and murdering a three-year-old girl. Her body too was dumped in an abandoned coalmine, as was that of another of his victims – an 11-year-old girl – in a mine elsewhere in the district.

“The coal boom in the 1980s and 1990s led to a spurt in crimes of all hues. The dark depths of the mines, where few would dare to search, were turned into graves by criminals. Many of the victims were women and children because of human trafficking for mining as well as sex trade,” Hasina Kharbhih of the Shillong-based Impulse NGO Network told The Hindu .

Impulse’s 2010 investigative report on child labourers employed in Meghalaya’s “hazardous” mines was one of the documents on the basis of which the National Green Tribunal banned rat-hole mining in the State on April 17, 2014.

Data with the Meghalaya Police reveal the crime rate has been higher in the State’s eight (out of 11) mining districts. EJH, for instance, accounted for almost 14% of the 166 murders across the State in 2013, and almost 12% of the 159 murders the following year.

West Jaintia Hills district, known more for limestone mining than coal, followed closely behind EJH during those years.

According the Jaintia Coal Mines Owners and Dealers’ Association, there are about 60,000 mines spread across 360 villages in EJH. Most of these are abandoned, but left uncovered.

“The mine owners leave the pits just like that after extracting all the coal. Many children and young adults of villages around have fallen into these mines and died. But there are no complaints lodged because everyone’s scared of the coal barons,” Brian Kharpran Daly of Meghalaya Adventurers’ Association said.

Appeals to the authorities to have the mines covered to save lives have fallen on deaf ears, he said.

Local anti-mining activists, declining to be quoted, said the possibility of non-miners being buried in active or abandoned mines could make it difficult for search agencies to assert the body spotted by a robot at the ill-fated Ksan on January 18 belongs to one of the trapped miners.

17 miners, not 15

Saheb Ali, one of the five survivors of the December 13 disaster, reaffirmed on Sunday that 17 miners have been trapped in the Ksan mine, not 15.

“I checked with the khatamaster (record-keeper) and found there were 22 people working at the mine that day. If five of us, including the khatamaster and the sirdar (mine/man manager), survived 17 are down there,” Mr. Ali said from his village Nizdamugaon in western Assam’s Chirang district.

The EJH district authorities had more than a fortnight ago issued a list of 15 trapped miners. The list does not have the name of one Kuti Miyan of central Assam’s Hojai.

“The day after the mishap, I had reported to the EJH authorities about Kuti also being in the mine, but his name is yet to figure in the list,” Kamaluddin, Miyan’s brother, said.

“The original list of 15 miners is as per the report of the investigating officer. Any fresh claim will have to be inquired into for moving the government accordingly,” EJH Deputy Commissioner Federick M. Dopth said.

A district spokesperson said the Navy on Sunday suspended the operation to pull the remains of the body detected inside the rat-hole mine 160 ft below. “We are waiting for further instruction while efforts are on to locate items such as rings, amulets and pieces of clothes for relatives to identify the bodies, if and when they are located,” he said.

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