Mine tragedy: enforce NGT ban

A tragedy is unfolding at an illegal coal mine in Meghalaya’s East Jaintia Hills. For over a week or so, some 14 miners have been trapped in a flooded rat-hole coal mine. Rescue efforts are in full swing but have proved futile so far. With every passing day, hopes of finding the trapped miners alive are fading. This is not an isolated incident. In July 2012, for instance, 15 miners drowned in an illegal mine in the Garo Hills when an underground stream flowing near the mine flooded it. There have been several instances of coalmine walls collapsing and burying the miners. It is believed that several thousands have died in Meghalaya’s rat-hole mines between 2007 and 2014. A coalminer’s job is considered the most dangerous in India. Workers have to go deep into the bowels of the earth to extract coal. The situation in illegal mines is deplorable, particularly in Meghalaya’s rat-hole coal mines, where safety protocols are rarely adhered to. Since rat-hole mines are narrow, children are hired to go down these mines on bamboo ladders to dig out the coal and bring it up. They constitute a significant proportion of the fatalities.

In 2014, the National Green Tribunal imposed an interim ban on rat-hole mining across Meghalaya. Subsequently, the NGT allowed transport of already extracted coal but kept in place the ban on rat-hole mining. However, extraction of coal from illegal rat-hole mines continues to be practised openly in the state and often in collusion with authorities. Till the tragedy last week, which brought under the media spotlight the continuing practice of rat-hole mining in Meghalaya in defiance of the NGT order, Chief Minister Conrad Sangma used to deny its existence in the state.

The recent tragedy should serve as a wake-up call for the government. The NGT ban must be implemented. Those opposed to the NGT ban point out that coal mining is an important source of government revenue. It also provides employment for thousands of people in the state. These are important concerns. But, if the government wants, the NGT to lift the ban it should present it with a plan of action to make coal mining safe for workers and the environment. This will require abandoning the rat-hole mining method and looking to new technologies to extract coal. Miners, including those who are hired on contract basis, should be provided with medical facilities, pension plans and other social security benefits. If the NGT is convinced by this plan and the government implements it sincerely, a step-by-step lifting of the ban can be considered. Till then, the NGT ban should be implemented in letter and spirit.

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Mine tragedy: enforce NGT ban

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