Worse Than The
Rat Holes That Swallow People In Meghalaya
News18 Photo Essay
Worse Than The Plague
The areas where coal mining has been rampant is left with dead rivers and barely any ecology.

Two weeks after  15 mine workers got trapped in a 'rat hole' in Lumthari village in East Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya, there's no sign of them. No one knows what the inside of the coal mine looks like, the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) has no blueprint or maps either. 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. With the help of the locals, the NDRF team found out that the depth of the mine is about 350 feet. "There's at least 70-feet water inside," he says.

A 'rat hole' is a term used in coal mining. It involves digging of small tunnels, usually only 3-4 feet high. The name is because of the tiny size of the holes. The mining is done by digging small holes into the ground, much like the holes dug by rats. Often children are employed to enter and extract coal from these mines because of the small size. It mostly exists in North Eastern part of the country, a majority of which is in Meghalaya. Accidents, particularly cave-ins, are common during coal extraction.

On 13th December, 15 workers entered the coal mine using a crane. Once they reached the bottom of the pit, they crawled inside the horizontal 'rat holes'. The locals believe that one of the diggers accidentally punctured the walls of the cave, letting in water from the nearby Lytein River.

"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," says Ali, miner Mominul Islam's brother. Mominul is one of the miners who is trapped inside the 'rat hole'.

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned 'rat hole' coal mines in 2014, and retained the ban in 2015, on grounds of it being unscientific and unsafe for workers. However, in large parts of Meghalaya 'rat holes' are still operative.

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. "It's dangerous, we know. But we are poor and it pays for our bread," he says. However, while these coal mine workers could earlier go to the police to file a complaint, they can no longer do that because of the illegality involved.

There are two kinds of 'rat hole'. Narrow tunnels are dug on the hill slopes and workers go inside until they find the coal seam. The other one is called box-cutting. In the box-cutting method, a rectangular opening is made. A vertical pit of 100-400 feet is dug through that. The workers enter the pit using cranes, and once they reach the bottom, they enter tunnels that are dug horizontally. In East Jaintia Hills, this was the kind of 'rat hole' that trapped 15 miners.

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'.

This kind of coal mining activity has a huge negative impact on surrounding communities, quite literally leaving their villages uninhabitable. The areas where coal mining has been rampant is left with dead rivers and barely any ecology.

A migrant worker from Nepal whose job was to shovel coal onto trucks for around Rs 300 a day said 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.

"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.