WE COULD ALL BE DEAD
East Jaintia Hills (Meghalaya): A day after news of the trapped coal-mine workers spread in Meghalaya, a 60-year-old man travelled 400km from Rajabala, Garo Hills, to sit at the spot where his two grandsons were last seen before they entered the 'rat hole'. The state sent its rescue forces, the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) came in with 71 men, and the media rushed in too. But the grandfather waited there, hoping for a miracle.
Thirteen days after the incident, all that is left inside the labourers' tents — just a few metres from where they worked and are feared to have died — are a few broken egg shells, dirty old slippers, empty plastic bottles and a layer of black coal on the soil. Tired, the grandfather stopped waiting and returned to his village.
Meanwhile, some men from the state rescue forces are sitting and waiting for instructions — their work done now that the NDRF is here. The NDRF men are waiting for the government to bring in enough pumps for the water to be taken out. The government is waiting for someone to help them get these “rare” pipes that stopped existing after the mining ban in the state in 2014.
However, the wait for families of the trapped mine workers is far from over. The kin just want to see the faces of their loved ones now, even if they are still.
"The ‘sardar’ of that coal mine offered my son, brother and son-in-law this job. They were promised Rs 1,000 for each day of work. They didn't get a penny and they didn't even come back," says Shohor Ali. The 55-year-old from Magurmarai village, who says he has lost his entire family in the incident, pauses after every sentence and asks, "Madam, what will happen to me now?"
Ali's 18-year-old son, 35-year-old brother and 26-year-old son-in-law are trapped in the coal mine. He believes they are all dead. The man now has many mouths to feed — his wife, daughter and her three toddlers, the eldest of whom is five years old.
Ali has never worked in a coal mine and neither has his family. He helps locals find rooms on rent for a commission of Rs 200. "The ‘sardar’ didn't tell me that my son won't come back," Ali says, his voice breaking. The three members of his family were told they would get paid at the end of every week. But when they entered the mine on the sixth day, they did not come back. The ‘sardar’, meanwhile, fled.
The 55-year-old hasn't visited the site. "How will I go? I don't have so much money," he says. Sitting at his one-room house 500 km from Lumthari village, he is hopeful of getting some news. “Will I not be able to see their faces even once?”
Just three hours from capital city Shillong, on the picturesque road that leads to Lumthari village where the coal miners are trapped since December 13, labourers are scooping heaps of coal and filling the trucks. The 2014 National Green Tribunal (NGT) order banning rat-hole mining in Meghalaya was a farce and it is evident even four years later.
There’s an eerie silence, and fear. Everyone is aware that illegal mining continues, rat-hole mines exist, and often, labourers die but no one finds out.
“Don't stop your car when you are crossing the coal mines, don't photograph them,” a local reporter advised me. Since the NGT ban, most locals in Shillong advise against going to the Jaintia Hills. "It's not safe," they say.
The premonitions came true last month when Agnes Kharshiing, one of the most well-known activists in the state who has been voicing her concerns against the alleged involvement of politicians in illegal coal mining, and her associate Anita Sangma were brutally attacked when they were photographing vehicles carrying coal at Tuber Sohshrieh in East Jaintia Hills district. The day before she was attacked, she had tipped off the Shillong police about five trucks transporting coal illegally, which were then seized."The locals are aware of how unsafe these mines are, while these poor migrants are not."
While most of the coal-mine owners and dealers who handle the day-to-day work are locals, the labourers who risk their lives and enter the rat holes are usually outsiders — from Nepal, Bangladesh, Assam and the outskirts of the state. Many of these mine workers are Bengali Muslims, often subjected to humiliation as the general idea is that they are 'Bangladeshis'. Often, children as young as 8-9 years old are engaged in too because it gets easier for a physically smaller person to enter the 'rat holes'.
“The locals are aware of how unsafe these mines are, while these poor migrants are not. So the mafias simply take advantage of them. They make enough money to come back to the capital city and buy land and property," says Agnes.
Agnes, who is still bedridden, manages to take about 10 steps every day but is not giving up on her fight. "I have evidence that the government cannot deny. Now, it’s obvious that illegal coal mining continues with full state knowledge," she says.
The attack on Agnes followed by the tragedy in the mine has left the state government red-faced.
Meghalaya Police’s online records reveal that from April 2014 to November this year, there were at least 477 reported violations of the NGT orders. Illegal coal mining, illegal transportation of coal and transportation of coal beyond the permissible limit are among the violations that have led to the arrest of several miners and owners, as well as seizing of many trucks.
But Agnes says the government and police officials are in cahoots with the mine owners, which is why illegal coal mining is still rampant in the state. "The government should have stopped those labourers from going inside the rat hole. They didn't come through that rat hole, did they? The state only has policies for the rich, none for the poor," she says, adding, "It's a big racket."
The activist mentions that in 2015, sub-inspector of police PJ Marbaniang died under suspicious circumstances. Two conflicting official post-mortem reports were filed — one claimed that he was murdered, while the other said he had committed suicide. “He was killed because he had seized 52 trucks that were carrying illegal coal," she says.