Heavy rains, technical snags and unavailability of labour due to COVID-19 lockdown continues to hamper operations
A week after a dynamite blast led to the flooding of a coal mine in Meghalaya’s East Jaintia Hills, the search for five trapped miners continued to be in vain. Heavy rains, technical snags and unavailability of labour due to the lockdown imposed to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus disease severely hampered operations, according to officials involved in rescue work.
“The workers are likely trapped in the rat holes. We would have been able to locate them by now if they were in the main pit,” said an official.
A team of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and the State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) continued rescue operations at the mine in Umpleng village of the district June 6, said E Kharmalki, deputy commissioner, East Jaintia Hills.
The 500-feet-deep mine was originally filled with 153 feet water. The waters levels went up by 10 feet on June 4 due to incessant rainfall. They receded by 30 feet on June 5-6, according to district officials.
Four pumps are being used to take out the water and another two pumps are being installed, according to district officials. A survey was requested after rescuers stumbled on a similar mine 270 metres away. They speculate this mine could be connected with the accident site through an underground tunnel.
The district official said they had requested Coal India’s subsidiary the North Eastern Coalfields for 50 horse power pumps but they have been told that those pumps are not available in Assam.
A senior official of the NECL too confirmed that they were approached for pumps.
“NECL does not have any mining operations in the region at the moment. So we do not have the equipment that they requested for. We have told them to request the Coal India headquarters. This equipment would have to be arranged from some other subsidiary,” the official said.
Rescue operations underway. Photo: By special arrangement
Officials said the rescuers were able to first get into the mine June 1 evening. On June 3, a team of the NDRF joined the operation.
The incident was first reported on the evening of May 30, when Mohammad Karimul Bari, a 27-year-old student from Katigorah in Assam’s Cachar district, approached the local police station with the family of his neighbour Anwarul Islam Barbhuiyan, one of the five miners suspected to be trapped inside the coal mine.
Some workers from Cachar in neighbouring East Jaintia Hills informed Barbhuiyan’s family of the incident, Bari told Down to Earth. Among the four other trapped, three are from Assam and one from Tripura.
It was only the morning of May 31 that the police could locate the probable location of the coal mine due to rains and other logistical issues, said Jagpal Singh Dhanoa, superintendent of police, East Jaintia Hills.
He added that even as police looked for clues and details of the accident, it was not until the evening that four eyewitnesses came forward.
The statement by Meghalaya Police, based on the version of the eyewitness, stated that the incident happened on the morning of May 30 when a dynamite explosion triggered flooding in the 500 feet deep mine. “Within no time the mine was inundated,” the police statement said.
According to eyewitness accounts, Nizam Ali, manager of the coal mine, did nothing to rescue the workers and instead threatened the survivors and chased them away from the mining site.
Shining Longstang, the mine owner, has been arrested while a lookout notice has been issued for Ali, who continues to be on the run, said Dhanoa. The police have invoked various sections of the Indian Penal Code, section 21(5) of the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957 and section 51(b) of the Disaster Management Act.
The survivors who gave a detailed account of the incident of the police have also been booked for their alleged involvement in the illegal mining.
Police said there was no sign of mining activity when they arrived at the site of the incident. Chief Minister Conrad Sangma claimed that it was an abandoned mine.
But Abdul Mannan, a miner from Cachar district who survived the incident, alleged coal mining was underway when the incident took place. Mannan had joined the mine three weeks before the incident.
He claimed he was digging coal inside one of the rat holes on May 30 when he heard a loud sound and rushed out. He added he was rescued in time after being pulled out in the crane and was later rushed to a hospital.
“In the evening the news came that police would be coming. That is when Sordar fled,” he alleged.
A short distance from Mannan’s house, the family of 25-year-old Abdul Sukkur is losing hope. His elder brother Muslim Uddin, a daily wager, broke down as he recalled his last meeting with Sukkur who last came home more than three months ago.
“He has been working in Meghalaya coal quarries for over a year,” said Uddin. Sukkur, a father of three, used to load coal in the mine.
“I want to take my brother’s body to the graveyard and bury it. But many people are saying I may not even get to see the last of him,” said Uddin.
At the Barbhuiyan household in Katigorah, Fakrul Islam, whose brother Anwarul Islam is among those trapped, said: “He used to work with a mason. I hope to my brother’s face once,” Islam said.
Rescuers said the operation to retrieve the miners was riskier than the one that was launched in Ksan village of the district in December 2018. “The pit is deeper than the one in Ksan,” an official said.
This is the third coal mining accident in East Jaintia Hills since 2018, when 15 miners got trapped after an illegal coal mine got flooded in Ksan village on December 13.
Rescue operation in Ksan village in East Jaintia Hills where 15 miners got trapped after an illegal coal mine got flooded in December 2018. Photo: Sadiq Naqvi
The rescue operation in Ksan, which involved various agencies including the SDRF, the NDRF, the Indian Navy, the Indian Army among others, was finally wound up in July 2019. Bodies of only two miners could be recovered.
In January, six miners plunged to death when a crane carrying them snapped inside the mine in Sorkari, Deinshalu Village.
The Supreme Court had banned coal mining in Meghalaya in 2014. It lifted the ban conditionally in July 2019.
In March this year, in a bid to kickstart coal mining, the state government published a detailed SOP for applicants interested in obtaining prospecting license and / or mining lease. In May, CM Conrad Sangma said prospecting license of five landowners had been approved.
Yet, illegal extraction of coal continues in the state. Pralhad Joshi, Union Coal and Mines Minister, told Rajya Sabha in February 2021 that a total of 250 cases related to illegal coal mining had been registered in Meghalaya since March 2019.
Meanwhile, the state government under fire for being lenient on illegal mining has promised action. CM Sangma said that illegal activities will not be allowed and that action will be taken against those indulging in illegal coal mining.
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