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The hills are alive with black gold

A daily wage labourer loads coal into a truck at a depot in Meghalaya. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

A daily wage labourer loads coal into a truck at a depot in Meghalaya. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Fifty-one days have passed since 15 miners were trapped inside a flooded “rat hole” coal mine at Khloo Ryngksan (Ksan for short) in Meghalaya’s East Jaintia Hills district, some 130 km from the state capital Shillong. The miners would have probably perished instantly inside those narrow tunnels spreading out horizontally from the main shaft, which is about 350 ft deep. Indeed, if a few miners hadn’t providentially escaped, the whole incident might well have been hushed up. It has been a Sisyphean task for rescuers engaged in draining the shaft as the water level hasn’t gone down much despite high-powered pumps being used. Navy divers (a group of 15 from Visakhapatnam) and underwater ROVs or remote operated vehicles supplied by a Chennai-based company have helped retrieve one body and detect a second.

Coal-mine shafts in the Jaintia Hills are usually 100 to 200 ft deep. This particular one, according to reports, was dug in a secluded area, possibly to avoid detection after the 2014 NGT ban on mining. The deeper than usual main shaft must have been necessary to reach the coal seams far inside the hill.

Back when it was business as usual, submersible pumps were used to ‘throw out’ water after each monsoon (which in turn led to acid water runoffs into fields and subsoil) before the miners would go underground again in the dry season.

The river Lytein runs through this area, and it’s likely there are many abandoned mines around the new one filled with rainwater and water seeping in from the river. One or more of the ill-fated miners must have dug into one of these flooded mines, leading to water surging up their main shaft. This seems to be why, even after lakhs of litres of water has been pumped out, there’s been no discernible drop in levels.

Underground network

Miners, mine-owners, and ‘sordars’ or managers who have worked in the area will perhaps have an idea of the tunnel network below, but they must have long fled the area.

Growing up in Shillong during the 1980s and 90s, the coal trade was something you knew about without being conscious of it: the coal-filled trucks that came creaking down the slopes of the city at night, the smoke-belching trucks that held up traffic on the Shillong-Guwahati highway, the stories of mine-owners in chappals entering Shillong banks carrying lakhs of rupees in shopping bags, the tales of murder in Lad Rymbai and Soo Kilo and the bodies thrown down abandoned shafts. As what had been a cottage industry in the 70s grew larger and larger, generating more and more money, hundreds of crores, politics and administration gradually came to be influenced and then subverted by the coal trade.

There are three notable peculiarities of coal mining in the Jaintia Hills (and elsewhere in Meghalaya). First, being a tribal state where the 6th Schedule applies, all land is privately owned, and hence coal mining (like limestone mining) is done by private parties (however, since the 6th Schedule doesn’t explicitly refer to mining, environmental activists are calling for the coal trade to come under central mining and environmental laws).

Second, the sizeable coal deposits in the State, mostly in the Jaintia Hills, occur in horizontal seams only a few feet high that run through the hills — which is why rat-hole mining is practised instead of open cast mining.

Third, most of the labour (including children) comes from Nepal, the poorer areas of Assam, and Bangladesh.

In Meghalaya, the non-tribal is a second-class citizen, as is the poor tribal. This explains the general lack of concern even within the State about the trapped miners, who are a mix of Bengali Muslims from Chirang district in Assam, Nepalis, and three local tribal boys. The State was busy celebrating Christmas and New Year.

Besides, the coal trade has gone on for too long now for people in Meghalaya to be shocked by events connected to it, whether it is about polluted rivers or drowned miners, hired killers, or even police inspectors bumped off. The web series Narcos shows drug money subverting Colombian society at all levels; the coal trade in Meghalaya is somewhat similar, although thankfully on a much smaller scale. The ones who suffer, as always, are the poor and the weak.

In the middle of 2014, just after the NGT banned coal mining in Meghalaya, I went to the Jaintia Hills to write about it. What was immediately noticeable then was how an entire economy had ground to a halt. When I wrote this, I was surprised by some of the reactions: it was almost as if I was writing on behalf of the miners.

Now, five years later, we can see how it has played out. When the coal trade wasn’t regulated, how could the NGT order be implemented, especially when mining money greased the State’s wheels?

Poor, desperate labourers can always be found to go down the rat holes; only, they’re now dug in remote areas. Freshly mined coal is passed off as old stock, as the NGT first allowed the transport of coal mined prior to the ban (and then kept extending the time period for this). Before the 2018 State elections, people didn’t even bother with challan s for the transport of coal — trucks would wait on the lay-bys of highways for a signal to move toward the inter-state border, after payments had been made.

There has been a crackdown now, but mostly it’s the labourers being arrested. Whether the bodies are retrieved or not, coal mining will continue, in far-flung pockets. The miners say it’s the government’s responsibility to come up with a plan to protect the environment, but the state government and district councils have long adopted a hands-off attitude towards coal extraction, preferring only to collect money from it.

A miner’s story

A mine owner I met in 2014 illustrated the complex ties between coal and Jaintia society. He came from a family of farmers, and had worked first as a labourer loading coal, then a truck driver, then bought his own truck, then became a mine owner. An active man of medium height, he was wiry and muscular. He dressed flashily, wore expensive sneakers. His hands were callused from working as coal loader. “I would make ₹500-600 then, and gave it to my mother after keeping ₹100 for myself. Now, I have several houses in Shillong.”

The next time I met him was in a café in Shillong, where he was accompanied by two young, thuggish looking assistants. He had started out by investing in other people’s land, he told me. Once coal was struck, it would be divided 50:50 between him and the landowner. He spoke of mine grabbing, of intimidation of landowners in villages. I didn’t ask if he was involved.

Ironically, he knew the measures to be taken to improve things: filling up and sealing abandoned mines, treating water pumped out of mines to restore pH levels, safety equipment for workers. But he could not be bothered because the State government was not.

That was the last we met. A year or two later I heard he was supplying coal outside Meghalaya. Then last year, I heard he had died of cancer, leaving a few crores each to his sisters, his wife, and reportedly to a mistress as well.

Coal mining is part of a larger trend in the Northeast: the decimation of natural resources. There is large-scale deforestation going on in the Garo and Khasi Hills of Meghalaya, besides limestone mining in the Jaintia Hills.

Assam, which has lost most of its once extensive forest cover, sees poaching in the Dima Hasao region, coal mining in Upper Assam, and sand/ stone mining from river beds.

The Northeast is no pristine wilderness any more: the pressures of population and the need for livelihoods are stripping the land bare.

The writer is the author of the popular Detective Arjun Arora series.

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Printable version | Jun 30, 2022 12:17:47 pm |