The stakes are high, NGT ban ineffective

Meghalaya coal mining

On December 13, 2018, the country woke up to the news of 15 miners getting trapped in the 350-feet deep shaft in East Jaintia Hills district of Meghalaya. The news also confirmed the allegations that rat-hole mining is practised in the state despite the National Green Tribunal (NGT) declaring it illegal and banning coal mining of any kind, without a policy on safety and environment concerns. According to activists in Meghalaya, this mishap also brought to the fore the fact that the governments — be it the previous Congress or the present National People’s Party (NPP) — continue to neglect the need of having a policy as directed by the tribunal.

“The illegal mining continued as there is no one on the ground to enforce the NGT order. The NGT had ordered for proper assessment of the coal that was already extracted but that did not happen properly. If at all it happened, there is no accountability in the process. The coal miners are taking advantage of the situation and continuing their illegal business,” Meghalaya-based environmentalist, Naba Bhattacharjee, who was part of a committee set up by the NGT, told DH.

River turns acidic

The NGT had issued the ban based on a petition filed by a students’ body in Dima Hasao district in the neighbouring Assam that complained that water in the Kopili river that flows downstream into Assam turned acidic due to the release of effluent from the coal mines. 

The tribunal, which had allowed the transportation of only the extracted coal, in its order in 2015 said there was serious variation in the amount of coal declared to be extracted by the mine owners and coal assessed by the committee. The mine owners had declared that 36,59,152 metric tonnes of coal was extracted but the committee found 37,36,325 metric tonnes on the ground.

Also read: Poverty forces ‘rat-hole’ miners into death traps

“After the tribunal’s order, we involved experts of North-Eastern Hill University in Shillong in 2016, for a proper survey and to work out a policy for mine closure, environmental restoration and mine safety. But the government did not provide necessary financial support. What can experts do without support from the government? If a safety policy was worked out, such a tragedy could have been averted,” Bhattacharjee said. “This is despite the fact that an estimated Rs 500 crore, which was collected as environment cess from the coal miners, is still lying unused,” he said.

Despite the growing criticism, Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad K Sangma is against the closure of coal mining as a large number of people are dependent on it. “We are in touch with the union coal ministry on how to regulate mining with all the safety measures in place,” he told a local news channel after the mishap. The election manifesto of the ruling party, in fact, promised that it would try to regulate coal mining within a year. “The illegal mines are in interior areas and jungles where there is no road. So, it is not possible for our police force to keep a watch on every individual,” said Sangma, a statement which many read as his tacit support to illegal coal mining.  

Meanwhile, all eyes are now on the Supreme Court’ hearing on January 15 on a petition that sought the lifting of the NGT ban. The apex court had earlier allowed transportation of the extracted and assessed coal till January 31, 2019.

According to environmentalists, mining in Meghalaya began in 1815 when a coal deposit was discovered in Khasi Hills and Jaintia Hills districts. Mining began as a small-scale business by landowners but it increased after the Independence with the rise in demand for coal. It became a huge business for landowners, local miners, transporters and became a source of livelihood for thousands of labourers, many of whom are from the neighbouring Assam. At least eight of the 15 victims of the recent mine mishap hail from Assam. The poor labourers take the risk of the rat-hole mines as they fetch Rs 1,500 to Rs 2,000 per day compared to the daily wage of Rs 300 to 400 for other works. According to an estimate, the NGT ban in 2014 impacted the livelihoods of over 1.5 lakh families in Meghalaya and Assam and the lack of a rehabilitation project has kept the illegal business going.

A brutal nexus

Amita Sangma, an activist, who was attacked allegedly by a group of coal miners on November 8, 2018, alleged that the government was not acting against the illegal mining as its leaders work hand in glove with the coal miners and the police. “The business runs to the tune of crores. How can we expect a crackdown on illegal miners, when leaders of the ruling party are involved? This became clear on December 27, when Nidamon Chulet, an NPP leader in East  Jaintia Hills district, who had attacked us, surrendered before the police,” she told DH over the phone from Shillong.

Sangma and Agnes Kharsiang, another activist had gone to East Jaintia Hills district and clicked photographs of coal-laden trucks, when they were attacked allegedly by a group of coal miners. Sangma has filed a petition in Meghalaya high court recently seeking a CBI inquiry into the attack and alleged nexus between politicians and coal miners after Meghalaya government declined to hand it over to a central intelligence agency.

Meghalaya should replace men with the machine to save lives and environment, said mining expert Jaswant Singh Gill, who was rushed to the mining mishap site. “Meghalaya coal seams are thinner—three to four feet compared to 10 to 15 feet in West Bengal or Jharkhand. So, machines can extract the coal better. The government must use machines instead of risking human lives,” Gill said.

The coal mines in Meghalaya, he said, lacked safety measures, which cause frequent mishaps killing people. “There is no safety chamber in Meghalaya coal mines. Many mines, I have seen in Bengal and Jharkhand a second pit is dug to ensure that oxygen supply is not affected in case of a landslip or flooding. Such safety measures are taken in West Bengal and Jharkhand and hence there are fewer accidents,” said Gill, who rescued at least 65 miners trapped in a coal mine in West Bengal’s Raniganj in 1989. The families of those trapped in the East Jaintia Hills district mishap continue to wait eagerly for some good news as people insist on measures to avert such mishaps. 

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The stakes are high, NGT ban ineffective

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