East Jaintia Hills/Shillong, Meghalaya: It's an open secret. Despite the imposition of a blanket ban on unscientific methods of coal mining in Meghalaya in 2014, illegal rat-hole mining continues to take place in the state and right under the nose of the government machinery, putting lives at risk every day.
Sadly, it takes a tragedy or two -- such as the 15 miners who have been trapped inside an illegal coal mine in East Jaintia Hills since December 13 last year -- for the issue to make it to mainstream press.
On April 17, 2014, the National Green Tribunal imposed a blanket ban on unscientific methods of coal mining, particularly rat-hole mining, in Meghalaya. Rat-hole mining is a form of mining unique to Meghalaya owing to the thin layers of coal prevalent in the state and is considered to be a cheaper alternative to large-scale operations.
When this EastMojo team visited Meghalaya, a couple of weeks after the Ksan tragedy took place, it was not difficult to spot trucks loaded with coal just after crossing the borders towards East Jaintia Hills district.
Generally, most of the coal mined in Meghalaya is transported to Kabaitari in the Bongaigaon district of Assam. From here, it is distributed to other parts of the region.
A drive further surprises even more as one can see heaps of coal piled up along the main stretch of road leading towards Khliehriat, the district headquarters of East Jaintia Hills.
The road is dotted with so many of such piles that one loses count. At several such deposits, one can see coal being loaded and unloaded into and from trucks waiting to be transported to their destinations.
Most of the miners dodge the ban by taking advantage of the relaxation that the NGT made for transportation of the coal extracted prior to the implementation of the ban. This was after a petition filed by coal-mine owners that gave them a window of over four years. As per the latest order of the Supreme Court, transportation of this extracted coal was extended to January 31 this year.
Anti-coal mine activists in Meghalaya allege that the temporary relaxation on coal transportation has been exploited by many. Trucks ply to transport illegally mined coal with impunity, while the administration turns a blind eye to such practices.
“When we approached the tribunal with a complaint that coal is being illegally mined, the tribunal gave a directive to the Meghalaya government to produce a mining policy which never saw the light of the day. Instead, they submitted a mining plan. The mining plan does not give a comprehensive plan on how scientific mining has to take place,” Hasina Kharbhih, founder and chairperson, Impulse NGO Network and an anti-coal mine activist of international repute, told EastMojo.
Tata Consultancy was hired to work with the state government to work on the mining policy and they produced a report that scientific mining in Jaintia Hills cannot take place because there are no virgin lands available, except for some places in Garo Hills. “The state government is aware of this and they have been buying time for the past two years so that they can raise money for the politicians because election was approaching,” Kharbhih said.
In a latest development, the NGT on December 18, 2018 passed a directive to the Meghalaya government to furnish a report of factual aspect but there is no response from the government till date.
Livelihood or death trap?
While the mine-owners live in plush houses on high ground, saving them from all the hardships that a miner has to go through, labourers risk their lives almost every day just to make a living.
Each morning, miners crawl through tunnels, most of which are less than 3-ft tall at a depth of 300-ft to 1,800-ft, and claw at seams of coal with just a hammer, some pick axes and a wooden basket.
Miners stay inside the mines for hours, without any safety gear. All they carry with them is a hammer, a shovel and a collecting basket. Speaking to EastMojo, a 22-year-old miner, who has been working in the mines for the past 13 years, said that there are at least two to three accidents every year that go unreported, let alone rescue operations or compensation being paid to the next of the kin of victims. Apart from the lack of safety measures, some of the mines witness gas emissions, that may pose danger to people working there.
What then is the motivating factor for these miners? When EastMojo tried to scractch beneath the surface, some of the miners revealedthat the entire process of illegal coal mining, starting from excavating the coal to loading them to trucks and collecting them in the dumping ground, are paid anywhere between Rs 1,800 and Rs 2,500 per day, a huge sum for a daily-wage labourer even by a conservative estimate.
As such, labourers, especially from Assam and neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh and Nepal, are drawn in hordes to work in these mines, the hazardous conditions notwithstanding. However, not too many of them realise that the wage package has been made in such a way that, in the end, there is hardly any money left by the end of the month. As per Kharbhih of Impulse NGO Network, there is a nexus involved in the entire system that ensures that the money of the coal miner remains with them.
“Each mine labourer would earn up to Rs 40,000 a month. But, interestingly, when we did the estimation for our research document, we found that they didn't have that kind of money in their pocket. The reason behind this is that half of the time, the mine managers charge them enormous amounts of money for food, even mundane as rice and dal. Their salary would come down to Rs 15,000,” she said.
Every week, there is a market day from where they buy their basic requirements such as water, sanitation, etc. The rotation of money is designed in such a way that it looks enormously productive but by the end a very little remains, she added.
Another reason that binds the miners is that their salaries are paid in such a manner that part of their salaries would be held back while promising to pay it in the following week which retains the labourers.
Anti-mining activist Agnes Kharshiing is recovering after a near fatal attack on her that took place while she was trying to take pictures of trucks ferrying coal from the mines of East Jaintia Hills on November 8 last year. Kharshiing has been particularly vocal about the alleged involvement of politicians in the now-illegal coal trade.
When EastMojo spoke to Kharshiing, the activist apprised us more on the issue. A few businessmen and politicians are using the youth to create a fear psychosis among others, she said.
“There are people who try to contact us and want us to tell their story. They don’t have proper roads, the water there is turning red due to the continuous mining of coal. There are people who are controlling all this. Even the police remain mum because of the fear of being transferred and that is how even the locals are taught whereas the politicians hire goons who threaten the poor,” Kharshiing said.
Abandoned mines are another cause of concern. They not just pose a threat to the environment, but also to people living around the area. This, again, has been overlooked or rather disregarded by the authorities concerned in the pursuit of making money. There are several houses that stand over such abandoned mines. The scooped out rat-holes underneath are a recipe for disaster.
“While travelling towards Saipung, there are several houses that shake at times because there are several rat-holes underneath them. They have been excavated without the will of the house owners and these may result in a disaster at any time,” Kharshiing said.
Meanwhile, Kharbhih informed that the NGT had collected more than Rs 800 crore as revenue from the coal miners of which Rs 400 crore was sanctioned for the restoration of environment. This included the refilling of the rat-holes to avoid any kind of natural calamity, but so far, that has remained just on paper.