Heavy rainfall on Tuesday is hampering operations to rescue at least five miners trapped for two days deep inside an illegal rat-hole coal pit in Meghalayas East Jaintia Hills district, officials said. The district administration has identified five miners four from Assam and one from Tripura who were trapped at the coal pit in the remote Umpleng area of Sutnga Elaka since Sunday when a dynamite blast had led to the flooding of the coal mine.
Superintendent of Police in neighbouring Assams Silchar district had sent information to the authorities here about the possibility of six miners of his state being trapped in the mine. "As of now, heavy rainfall is hampering rescue operations. Twenty-five personnel of the State Disaster Response Force (SDRF), and fire service personnel are at the site.
"We are trying to mobilise a crane to first ascertain the depth of the mine," district deputy commissioner E Kharmalki told PTI. A high-powered pump has also been requisitioned but this would be put into operation once the divers can go inside the pit to find out if anyone is alive, he said.
The district administration has put out a public notice seeking information about the accident on May 30. "Anyone having any knowledge about this matter is requested to depose at the office of the deputy commissioner between 11 am and 3 pm on or before June 8," the order said.
Locals said the possibility of any of the trapped miners coming out alive is slim although the district administration is making all efforts to reach them. "The mine is vertically dug for over 100 feet until a coal seam is met. Then a network of smaller vertical holes is dug across to collect the coal. An inundated mine means that the entire network of holes is also flooded," an elder of Sutnga Elaka said.
A manhunt has been launched to arrest the 'sordar' (mine manager) who fled the scene and threatened locals against opening up about the incident, the Superintendent of Police, East Jaintia, Jagpal Singh Dhanoa said. Environmental activist Agnes Kharshiing said, people will not speak out " as they are under pressure from the coal mafia which does not want the true extent of the tragedy to be made public".
One suspect has been detained but he tested positive for COVID-19 and is currently undergoing quarantine at a government facility at Khliehriat, the SP said. The Umpleng accident is similar to one in which an illegal rat-hole mine in Ksan area of the same district was flooded on 13 December 2018.
Only three bodies were retrieved from inside the mine in a joint effort by the Navy, Army, and the NDRF, and seven months after a search for the bodies of over 15 miners who were trapped in the mine, the Supreme Court had allowed the Meghalaya government to call off the operations. Illegal rat-hole mining is allegedly rampant in the state despite a ban imposed on it by the National Green Tribunal in 2014.
In the rat-hole mining process, a deep vertical shaft is dug till coal seams are found. Once the seams are found, coal is taken out through small holes along the horizontal. Meanwhile, Leader of Opposition Mukul Sangma held the state government responsible for the incident and alleged that illegal coal mining operates with complete impunity across Meghalaya.
"Never in the history of Meghalaya and NE India had such cartel operated with complete impunity engaging in illegal coal mining and illegal transportation and illegal transaction of such coal across the states — robbing the states. Na khaunga, na khane dunga…kab hoga?" he tweeted. The Congress leader had in the past raised the issue of illegal and unscientific mining and transportation of coal across the state.
"Illegality of this scale cannot happen without the patronage by the people in authority — both illegal mining and illegal transportation go under the watch of the government," the former chief minister had said. Congress leader Ampareen Lyngdoh also demanded to know "who profits from this system".
Another coal mine in the South Garo Hills district had flooded in 2012 and locals claimed 15 labourers were feared dead but none of their bodies were found.