Caught Between Coal Mafia and Flooding Dangers, Meghalaya Mine Was Disaster From Day One
The coal mine in Meghalaya’s East Jaintia Hills, where 14 workers are trapped since a week, has put the spotlight on rampant illegal coal mining in the state, despite a ban by National Green Tribunal in 2014.
Guwahati: The collapse of a coal mine, trapping 14 workers in Ksan — some 130 km away from Meghalaya’s capital city of Shillong — and the attack on RTI activist Agnes Kharshiing allegedly by coal mafia, have put the spotlight on the rampant illegal coal mining in the state, despite a ban by National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2014.
Kharshiing, who is yet to recover from her injuries, pointed at a nexus between the coal mafia and government agencies. “This unfortunate event has exposed the government’s failure to implement the NGT order. The nexus between the coal mafia and government agencies have come to fore now. How can the illegal mining continue without any backing by the authority?” asked the RTI activist who was recently released from the hospital.
On November 8, Kharshiing was thrashed by alleged coal mining racketeers in Kongong area for taking pictures of some coal-laden trucks. Her complaints against the illegal miners were ignored and the police registered a case of robbery and attempt to murder.
A month later on December 13, some 48 km away from the spot where she was assaulted, 14 persons were trapped inside an illegal ‘rat-hole' mine at Ksan in the district's Saipung area.
Recalling her visit to Saipung last year, Kharshiing said, “I met miners aged between 16 and 20. They had come from Assam’s Barpeta and Karbi Anglong districts and a few were from Nepal. Burdened with severe poverty, these miners had chosen a job that could have killed them any day. The government doesn’t seem to be bothered with human lives.”
The 58-year-old RTI activist said that rat-hole mining activities are rampant in Nongkseh and Sutnga in East Jaintia hill districts and forest areas of both West Khasi hills and Garo hills.
Apart from being illegal, these mines are notorious for their dangerous and primitive methods. The NGT, while banning mining because of its adverse effect on nature and environment, had said: “The mining activity in Jaintia hill is a small scale venture controlled by individuals who own the land primitive method commonly known as ‘rat-hole’ mining. In this method, the land is first cleared by cutting and removing the ground vegetation and then digging pits ranging from 5 to 100 m into the ground to reach the coal seam.”
“Thereafter, tunnels are made into the seam sideways to extract the coal which is brought into the pit by using a conical basket or a wheelbarrow manually. Coal seams are reached by excavating the side edge of the hill slopes and then coal is extracted through a horizontal tunnel,” said the NGT order of 2014.
Locals and mine workers claim sometimes tunnels are so small that minor workers are hired only because of their small size. The rat-hole mine of Ksan, where the fate of 14 workers still remains uncertain, is believed to be 70 feet deep and now filled with water.
“Because of the rain in the last two days, the rescue operation has been difficult. The water level in the mine has even gone up due to rain,” said S K Singh, assistant commandant, The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF). The NDRF and Meghalaya state disaster response force are continuing their rescue operation.
Eight days have passed and the rescue operation has so far failed as the water level in the flooded mine has not receded. Although the trapped miners are believed to 14 in total, the sole survivor of the incident, Soyeb Ali, claimed that there were at least 17 people at work when the water gushed inside the mine suddenly. Police sources said that no one could tell the exact numbers of the miners because no log book or register is maintained in such mines.
Tests have confirmed that the acidity of the water in the nearby river and the mine is the same though it could not be known from which point the water was entering the mine, the NDRF official added. Such mines are believed to be connected with other mines too.
The latest incident is one in a series of cases involving illegal mining in the state. In July 2012, some 15 workers drowned in an illegal mine in Garo Hills when an underground stream flooded it. In February 2014 too, four miners were killed in a similar accident.
Caught between land rights of local tribal people and central law, the mining industry in Meghalaya has always been under the radar. Despite the rights of tribals protected by norms under the Six Schedule, Meghalaya is not exceptional to the Coal Mines (Nationalisation) Act of 1973, enabling government ownership of underground minerals.
The National People’s Party-BJP government in the state, which ousted the Congress from power after 15 years, had made promises of bringing a comprehensive solution (to the ban) and working it out with the central government if voted to power. The Meghalaya government had recently sought for a way around the mining ban.
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