From a rat hole in Meghalaya.
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By The Time You Read This, We Could All Be Dead
Broken egg shells, dirty old slippers, empty plastic bottles and a layer of black coal are the only reminders of the trapped Meghalaya miners who may never see the light of the day.

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.

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. (Photos: Adrija Bose)
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. (Photos: Adrija Bose)

"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.

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. (Photo: Adrija Bose)

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.


NDRF assistant commandant SK Singh, who has been camping at the site since news about the miners being trapped reached the authorities, says the task force has tried everything — using sonar radios, diving, taking in boats, and water pumps. But so far, it has encountered only failure.

"We were not provided any maps or blueprints because operating these mines is illegal and no one has any clue of what's in there," Singh says. However, with the help of the locals, the NDRF team figured out that the depth of the mine is about 350 feet. "There's at least 70-feet water inside," he says.

The senior NDRF officer says the workers must have entered the horizontal manholes after reaching the bottom of the pit. "We discovered that many of the mines in this area are connected at the underground level,” he said. The locals believe that one of the diggers accidentally punctured the walls of the cave, letting in water from the nearby Lytein River. “We are trained to dive up to 40 feet, but the water level was much higher so we asked the administration to pump it out so we can go in," Singh says.

When mining expert Jaswant Singh Gill arrived at the site, he made several recommendations to the state to hasten the operation. One of the most important ones was to pump out the water. He asked for at least 100 pumps of 150 horsepower (HP) each to be brought in immediately. As of now, the site has only one functional 25 HP pump. "After the NGT ban, all the machinery went in the garbage. So most of the pumps that were given were rusted and didn't function," Singh says.

"They feel our lives aren't worthy enough."

Initially, with the help of some former coal miners, the team found eight pumps but only two of them worked. "Now only one is functioning, the second one needs to be repaired," Singh says. After 13 days of waiting, he's hoping to see some ‘movement’. "Rescuers can't lose hope," he says with a smile, and somewhat of a bravado.

But the water has barely dropped an inch. There has been no trace of the workers and no one even knows how many are in there. Some say 15, some believe it’s 18, and others say there may have been minors too. "The government could have done a lot more, they could have taken the water out in three days," says Ali, miner Mominul Islam's brother.

"I have been in this situation before and I have witnessed deaths. I knew from the first day that they need at least 100 pumps to take the water out. I even told the NDRF team there that I can help them. But no one listened," he says. Ali says he knows coal mine owners who own hundreds of pumps, but feels the government has simply ignored the situation because of the illegality involved. "They feel our lives aren't worthy enough," he says.

Ali, who worked in coal mines for eight years before the NGT ban, says even when it was legal, workers often got injured and death wasn’t uncommon. "But we could go to the police to file a complaint. Now, we can't even do that," he says. Talking about the curse of the ban, the 33-year-old says the mine owners and the ‘sardars’ would compensate them with Rs 4-5 lakh when someone died. "They have all fled now because the police will arrest them. We can't even go to anyone for help," he says.


The issue of coal mining in Meghalaya is political. It was significant in the state’s Assembly elections held in February and analysts say the Congress lost because it did not do enough to lift the ban. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in its election manifesto, had promised a solution to the impasse within eight months of being elected to power, but the ban still exists.

The Congress, on its part, says that since the BJP formed the coalition government in the state, illegal mining increased considerably. "The government is not willing to impose restrictions. They are not serious about the ban," says George Bankyntiewlang Lyngdoh, Congress MLA from Umroi constituency.

John F Kharsiing, chairman of the Grand Council of Chiefs of Meghalaya, believes it is nearly impossible to implement the coal-mining ban. Kharsiing is the head of the tribal leaders of Jaintia hills. "There are 12-13 different kinds of land ownership here. The lease and auction system can work anywhere in the country, except in Meghalaya. Here, people impose their rights on the land and even what's inside of it," Kharsiing says.

A layer of black coal and a cart are the only reminders of the trapped Meghalaya miners who may never see the light of the day. (Photo: Adrija Bose)

In a letter to the prime minister in 2017, former Meghalaya chief minister Mukul Sangma wrote that the Coal Mines Nationalisation Act, 1973, was never enforced in Meghalaya because that would dilute the land rights of the local indigenous tribes. Sangma had submitted a proposal to the government to issue a presidential notification to revoke the Mines & Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957, and the Coal Mines (Nationalisation) Act, 1973, because they were in conflict with the 'traditional practices and rights'.

However, HH Mohrmen, an environmental activist based in Jowai, is of the opinion that even if a person owns the land, it does not give them the right to pollute the water and air, and the NGT ban must be imposed in the state. "People who live downstream of the hills are also our own kith and kin... they just happen to live near the three dead rivers... they have lost their livelihood and culture to mining, because water from coal mine areas laced with sulphuric acid has killed these rivers..." he wrote in Shillong Times when the ban was first announced.

In 2014, a migrant worker from Nepal, whose job was to shovel coal onto trucks for around Rs 300 a day, told this reporter that she did the work because she had nothing else to do. In most of the areas where coal mining is rampant, there's no agriculture and not enough water. In the mining areas, the water is so polluted that most of the rivers and streams are brownish-orange in colour. Most villagers have to walk for hours to get access to drinking water. The communities that would earlier depend on fishing have only 'dead' rivers left now.

"Here, people impose their rights on the land and even what's inside of it."

In a research paper on coal mining, Sumarlin Swer and OP Singh, professors of environmental studies at North Eastern Hills University of Shillong, wrote that the rivers and streams of Meghalaya’s Jaintia Hills are the 'greatest victims'. "Contamination of acid mine drainage (coloured acidic seepage originating from mines and spoils), leaching of heavy metals, organic enrichment and silting are some of the major causes of water pollution. Degradation of water quality in the area is evidenced by low pH (in the range of 3 - 5), high conductivity, high concentration of sulphates, iron and other toxic metals, low DO and high BOD. Mine drainage is affecting aquatic life from elimination of all but the few tolerant species," the paper noted. While suspending the mining operations in the state, the NGT had placed much emphasis on this research paper.


Police have arrested one person in connection with the mine mishap. Superintendent of Police Sylvester Nongtynger said Krip Chullet has confessed to owning the mine but the families of the trapped workers feel he is not the only one to be blamed.

"We go there because they offer us money. We are poor. What can we do? Coal mining happens in the state and everyone is aware. Why can't the government help us?" asks Abdul Karim. Six years ago, a spinal cord injury inside a rat-hole mine in the same area had left Karim paralysed. “A big chunk of rock fell on my neck while I was digging for coal. It affected my spinal cord. I can’t walk anymore. I am on wheelchair,” the native of Magurmarai village says.

On December 6, Karim's 30-year-old brother Abdul Kalam left his home to work as a labourer in a mine. But the official record of 13 labourers does not list his name. "I only found out about it when I couldn't reach him for days. But nobody is counting him," he says.

Both the brothers worked in the mines for years. After Karim's paralysis, his older brother stopped going as well. But soon enough, they realised that someone needs to work in the mines to put food on the table for the family of nine. So, his brother returned to the dangerous mines despite repeated pleas from his wife and family. "Someone needed to earn the money," Karim says.

"We go there because they offer us money. We are poor. What can we do?"

The 28-year-old is now waiting for his brother’s dead body so he can perform the last rites. Back at home, Kalam's wife, who is seven months pregnant and has a 10-month-old baby, has no hope of her husband's return either. "No one from the government has even come to the village once to talk to us. Who will take care of our family now?" Karim asks.

In a similar incident in 2012, 15 people were trapped in a coal mine in Meghalaya’s South Garo Hills. Most of these labourers were believed to be from Assam’s Dhubri district. After days of failed attempts at pumping out the water, the miners were declared dead. "The manager and the owner were arrested, but we couldn't trace the bodies. We couldn't prove that they were dead," says Davis P Marak, SP Khasi Hills, who was the then SP of the district in Garo Hills. "The coal miners and managers had then paid some compensation to them," he says. However, this time, that is not even a possibility because the managers have fled for fear of being arrested.

About two kilometres away from where the miners are trapped, ambulances wait. The rescue team is hoping for a miracle. (Photo: Adrija Bose)

Ten years before that, 30 people died in Garo hills when water surged in from an abandoned mine, drowning the labourers inside.

A few dozen people, including minors, die every year in Meghalaya and the tragedy is never reported. Crippling injuries and deaths from falls, cave-ins, and drownings are quite common. Activists say the 'greed of coal mining' has also led to child trafficking and prostitution. After the NGT ban, the evils became a more hush-hush affair.

"Reporters are coming to my village and taking my photos. They are asking me to talk about my dead son. Will anything change? Who will help us?" Shohor Ali asks.

A Nation That Prayed For The Boys Doesn't Care about Its Miners
Meghalaya Tragedy

Mining is not new to the Khasi-Jaintia people of Meghalaya and iron smelting dates back 2,000 years.

The technology used for ore extraction was similar to that used in central India, says a study carried out by Pawel Prokop, a geo-environmental researcher with the Polish Academy of Sciences and his colleague, Ireneusz Suliga.

The scientists came to Meghalaya in 2013 to conduct their research. The two scientists from Poland were engaged in geo-environmental research in the Khasi hills and found charcoal and residual slag from iron extraction at several sites, including Nongkrem in East Khasi Hills where the slag is 2,040 years old.

Even today if one visits Rangjyrteh in Cherrapunjee (Sohra), one can still see iron slags lying around and huge stone containers that were cut out in the shape of bowls and were used for smelting iron. The iron implements were apparently sold to East Bengal which then sold those implements elsewhere.

The British found traces of this iron smelting when they entered these hills in 19th century and they spoke of a thriving iron smelting industry in the Khasi Hills then but could not date the advent of the iron smelting activity.

The two Polish scientists say that it’s now evident that the industry started over 2,000 years ago. Apparently charcoal was used for iron smelting. The scientists are, however, unsure if iron-smelting was discovered by the local Khasi people or it if the technique was brought to the hills by someone from other parts of India where again mining is an almost ancient activity.

As far as coal is concerned mining evidently started in the second half of the 19th century when the British entered the Khasi-Jaintia Hills, then under the composite state of Assam. According to the Geological Survey of India, there are proven reserves of 600 million tonnes of coal in with Meghalaya with an annual production of 5 million tonnes.

During the British period, coal was partly used for commercial purposes and partly for their consumption as a fuel for warming homes. The commercial production stopped because of the difficulty in transporting coal over difficult terrain. It was only after Meghalaya attained statehood in 1972 that coal mining was resumed on a commercial scale.

According to the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, land in Meghalaya belongs to the “people.” This includes land vested with communities, clans and individuals. Under the protection of the Sixth Schedule, where not just the land but everything under it also belongs to the people, a free-for-all mining exercise started without any technological know-how but using the traditional unscientific mining practices.

Mine owners claim that scientific mining is not viable in Meghalaya since that would mean a heavy investment in machinery. When a PIL was field by a student’s body in Assam in 2014, citing that acid mine drainage has rendered the waters flowing downstream into Assam from Meghalaya has become toxic, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned further mining of coal in Meghalaya but allowed the extracted coal to be transported after it was duly assessed. This was a flawed exercise because the NGT did not have resources to monitor if coal mining continued after the ban, which it did.

And indeed the 17 miners trapped inside a mine in Jaintia Hills even now where the rescue operations continue were involved in coal mining by violating the NGT ban.

The NGT directed the state government to come with a comprehensive mining policy since the ban was imposed but that policy is yet to see the light of day. Sans a mining policy, coal mining allowed the flouting of all environmental norms. No labour laws operated there. Since coal in Meghalaya is located at shallow levels, the mines are narrow shafts approximately of approximately three feet in diameter. They can go up to about 300-350 feet down. Coal is lifted out of the shafts in small wooden boxes brought up by cranes and then dumped by the roadside and then loaded on to trucks.

Transportation of coal, too, is a lucrative business and most coal mine owners also own trucks. As in every mining hub, criminal activities are rampant. One characteristic of coal mining in Meghalaya is that labour is brought in from across the Bangladesh border and from Nepal. The locals don’t venture into this risky livelihood.

Documentary film maker Chandrashekhar Reddy’s film Fireflies in the Abyss captures the plight of these child-labourers who are forced into this risky livelihood to keep body and soul together and to support their families. The film focuses on young Suraj from Nepal who is barely 12-13-years-old and who enters the mines and works there for almost 14 hours a day because the more coal he digs, the more he earns.

This film has been shown at several national and international film festivals and is available on YouTube so there is nothing secret about the treacherous manner in which coal is mined in Meghalaya with scant regard for the human rights of those who enter the mines.

There have been no safeguards for the miners then and there are no safeguards now. And since governments, past and present, are complicit in allowing this criminal neglect of human rights to continue, and also because coal money funds all elections, no one actually wants to touch this issue with a barge pole.

And this is also not the first time that so many miners have been trapped in coal mines of Meghalaya without anyone making a big deal about it. In 2012, 15 miners were trapped inside a coal mine near Nangalbibra South Garo Hills. Their bodies were never recovered. This, too, happened due to sudden flooding of the mines. Usually flooding happens when miners hit into a wall of an abandoned mine filled with water. Miners can then do little to stop the flooding. It is a miracle that the 15 other miners managed to escape from that mine in Garo Hills while the rest met a watery grave.

In 1992, a similar incident happened in Garo Hills when 30 people died due to similar flooding of a mine. In this case, too, the miners hit an abandoned mine that was filled with water.

(Illustration: Mir Suhail)

The local media reported these deaths and continued to follow up the stories. Some regional media, too, reported likewise. Columnists have been hammering on about the need for scientific mining that will look after the environmental concerns of Meghalaya where at last three important rivers of Jaintia Hills — the Myntdu, the Lukha and the Lunar have become toxic due to acid mine drainage (AMD) and today are devoid of any riverine life.

But such write-ups fall on deaf ears.

In 2014, Keith Schneider from Circle of Blue, US came to Meghalaya to document the high-risk coal mining activity in Meghalaya and the complete disregard for the large-scale environmental degradation that is now part of the Meghalaya landscape.

Schneider’s documentary, too, was shown but with little reaction from the rest of the world.

In June 2018, when 13 school boys of a football team were trapped in a cave in Thailand, the whole world waited with bated breath to hear if they would be rescued and if they would survive. The boys were finally found by two British divers and later rescued by a very strategic operation but not without one of the rescuers losing his life due to asphyxiation. The rescue operation lasted nearly a week and the rescuers comprised US air force rescue specialists, and cave divers from the UK, Belgium, Australia, Scandinavia, and many other countries. Some had volunteered, and some were called in by Thai authorities.

Compared to that catastrophe, which caught world attention, the news about the miners trapped in the mines of Jaintia Hills, Meghalaya and Garo Hills in the past are not even a blip on the radar. Come to think of it, even national media in this country finds so much to report on politics but not on human tragedies; not especially if something happens in this distant periphery which rarely raises the conscience of the nation.


Produced by — Sheikh Saaliq
Illustrations — Mir Suhail