Dumped in a pit

The 2014 National Green Tribunal ban has not only failed to contain rat-hole mining, but has also stopped the Meghalaya government from regularising the trade

By Linda Chhakchhuak
Published: Friday 18 January 2019
rat-hole mining
There are over 24,000 rat-hole mining shafts in Meghalaya's greater Jaintia Hills that is spread over 3,819 sq km (Photo: Sugandh Juneja) There are over 24,000 rat-hole mining shafts in Meghalaya's greater Jaintia Hills that is spread over 3,819 sq km (Photo: Sugandh Juneja)

Meghalaya's closely guarded secret is slowly crumbling down. Two rat-hole mines in its East Jaintia Hills mining district have collapsed in the past one month, exposing the lawlessness in the state. While 15 labourers remain trapped due to flooding in the Ksan coal mine on December 13 last year, two labourers got killed due to falling boulders on January 6. Ironically, the state government has maintained that rat-hole mining has stopped following the 2014 National Green Tribunal (NGT) ban on it for being “unscientific, hazardous, and functioning out of the purview of the mining laws of the land”. On August 31 last year, NGT had its final sitting on the case where it upheld the ban, and handed it over to the Supreme Court for the final disposal.

Far from closing the mines down, the ban has made them more secretive and dangerous. State advocate general Ranjan Mukherjee, during a fresh petition filed in the Supreme Court to fast track the rescue operations, said the rescue work is handicapped because the mines in the district do not have blueprints. “The mines are unknown and unmapped tunnels are making the rescue more difficult than the famed Thailand mine rescue where 12 members of a football team and their coach were saved after 18 days,” says Brian Daly Kharpran, an expert on caves from the state. A senior government official says the mine is so remotely located that it is not even electrified. “When the disaster happened, electricity lines had to be drawn in to run the pumps,” he says.

Troubled past

The annual coal production of Meghalaya in 2015 was 6 million tonnes and revenue collected was Rs 600 crore, according to former Meghalaya chief minister Mukul A Sangma. Coal reserves in the state are estimated at 640 million tonnes. When coal was nationalised in 1973, Meghalaya, a tribal state under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, was allowed to continue its “traditional cottage” mining status unhindered by the legal regulations of mining. With no legal hassles and easy access to land, most people jumped into the business of mining coal in their backyards.

The coal-rich areas of South Garo Hills and the East Jaintia Hills became booming towns, employing thousands. The high earnings lured many into death traps. “We could earn about Rs 30,000 a month,” says D Basumatory, a retired mine labourer.

Coal in the state is extracted through the rat-hole mining method, where horizontal tunnels are made after removing the forests till the time the coal seam is reached. Initially, mining required little investment. Over the decades, the first coal seam exhausted and people were forced to dig deeper. This required major investments. Dominic Pala, head-person of Lamarsiang village in East Jaintia Hills district, says he used to spend more than Rs 1 crore every mining season to pump out water from his three pits before 2014. The mine owners of his circle annually spent at least Rs 70-80 crore collectively just to pump out water. This led to the formation of a cartel that practiced unfettered mining in the area. The entire region of greater Jaintia Hills, the most mined region in the state, today is a ravaged mine-pocked land and its main rivers are polluted due to acid mine drainage for decades.

In the mid-1980s and early 1990s, several politicians from the area—including former Congress leaders O L Nongtdu and Herbert Suchiang—voiced against the rampant mining and demanded legalising the trade. The coal lobby made sure they lost the elections. Since then only people who own coal mines or are backed by the lobby win the elections in Jaintia Hills district. The recent citizen’s report, submitted before the Supreme Court last December, clearly exposes how politicians are involved in mining. Parliamentarian Vincent Pala along with four state ministers—Kyrmen Shylla, Sniawbhalang Dhar, Lakmen Rymbui and Comingone Ymbon—are involved in coal mining. Even Meghalaya’s Opposition Congress party has coal mine owners. Dikkanchi D Shira, wife of former chief minister Mukul A Sangma, owns several coal mines in Garo Hills.

The ruling National People’s Party, a partner of the Bharatiya Janata Party, came to power on the promise that it will get the rat-hole mining ban lifted. The first decision taken by chief minister Conrad A Sangma after coming to power in 2018 was to constitute a Group of Ministers to find out a solution to the NGT ban. The coal lobby’s influence has been evident. The Supreme Court in 2010 asked the state to come up with a mining policy. The state government notified the Meghalaya Mining Policy in 2012, but the policy was never implemented due to the mining lobby. “The Supreme Court simply accepted the state government’s assurance. We knew that the state government would not bring a policy on its own,” says Kharpran, adding that the policy would have averted the tragedy.

Looking beyond the ban

Environmentalist H H Mohrmen says rat-hole mining has to be regulated and not banned as it will impact the livelihood of many people. He adds that the current legal limbo is only benefitting the rich.

Ampareen Lyngdoh, Congress leader, says the only way out of the tangle now is for the Centre to invoke Para 12 A (b) of the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution. “This will authorise a Presidential notification to exempt Meghalaya from the current mining acts in the country. Unless that is done, whatever the state does will be considered illegal due to the NGT ban,” she says. This demand has also been echoed by the current government that has sent several delegations to the Centre to issue the Presidential notification.

“It’s so complicated now that it will take a long time before our mines can resume legally again. But we cannot go any other way as this is about our tribal rights,” says Erwin Sutnga, counsellor for the Khasi Hills Autonomous district Council.

(This article was first published in Down To Earth's 16-31 January edition)

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