LAST WEEK, the collapse of a coal mine in Meghalaya’s East Jaintia Hills, trapping at least 15 workers who were still missing until Wednesday and are feared dead, has thrown the spotlight on a procedure known as “rat-hole mining”. Although banned, it remains the prevalent procedure for coal mining in Meghalaya. A look at how rat-hole mining is carried out, and why it is dangerous:
What is rat-hole mining?
It involves digging of very small tunnels, usually only 3-4 feet high, which workers (often children) enter and extract coal. O P Singh, professor of environmental studies at North Eastern Hill University (NEHU) in Shillong, told The Indian Express that rat-hole mining is broadly of two types. “In side-cutting procedure, narrow tunnels are dug on the hill slopes and workers go inside until they find the coal seam. The coal seam in hills of Meghalaya is very thin, less than 2 m in most cases,” he said. In the other type of rat-hole mining, called box-cutting, a rectangular opening is made, varying from 10 to 100 sq m, and through that is dug a vertical pit, 100 to 400 feet deep. Once the coal seam is found, rat-hole-sized tunnels are dug horizontally through which workers can extract the coal.
When was it banned, and why?
The National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned it in 2014, and retained the ban in 2015, on grounds of it being unscientific and unsafe for workers. The state government has appealed the order in the Supreme Court.
Ecology: In their petition to the NGT, Assam’s All Dimasa Students’ Union and the Dima Hasao District Committee complained that rat-hole mining in Meghalaya had caused the water in the Kopili river (it flows through Meghalaya and Assam) to turn acidic. The NGT order quoted a report by Prof Singh: “Entire roadsides in and around mining areas are used for piling of coal which is a major source of air, water and soil pollution. Off road movement of trucks and other vehicles in the area causes further damage to the ecology of the area.”
Risk to lives: The NGT observed, “It is also informed that there are umpteen number of cases where by virtue of rat-hole mining, during the rainy season, water flooded into the mining areas resulting in death of many… individuals including employees/workers.” Following the state’s appeal, civil society groups this month submitted a ‘Citizens’ Report’ to Supreme Court-appointed amicus curiae Colin Gonsalves: “A worker carries with him a pickaxe, a shovel and a wheelbarrow. As the cave is dark he carries a torch… If water has seeped into the cave, the worker can enter only after the water is pumped out. Workers usually enter the cave early in the morning and keep on working till they are tired, or if they are hungry or when they feel that they have earned enough money for the day.”
To what extent is the practice followed?
According to available government data, when the NGT ban was ordered, Meghalayas’s annual coal production was nearly 6 million tonnes. Almost all of it is said to have come through rat-hole mining. Prof Singh explained that no other method would be economically viable in Meghalaya, where the coal seam is extremely thin. Removal of rocks from the hilly terrain and putting up pillars inside the mine to prevent collapse would be costlier. “In Jharkhand, for example, the coal layer is extremely thick. You can do open-cast mining. But in Meghalaya this is the locally developed technique and the most commonly used one,” he said.
The NGT order noted that the counsel for the petitioners had explained how “rat-hole mining operations have been in practice in Jaintia Hills… for many years without being regulated by any law and extraction of coal has been made by unscrupulous elements in a most illegal and unscientific manner”.
When is mining illegal?
The NGT order bans not only rat-hole mining but all “unscientific and illegal mining”. The state has in place the Meghalaya Mines and Mineral Policy, 2012, while clearances and permissions are required under central laws including the Mines and Minerals (Regulation & Development) Act. When the Meghalaya police arrested the main accused in the mine collapse case, he was charged under sections including MMRD Act section 21(1), which deals with penalties for mining without permission.
Highlighting the extent of illegal mining, the Citizens’ Report to the SC-appointed amicus curiae said: “The 6th Schedule of the Constitution intends to protect the community’s ownership over its land and the community’s autonomy and consent over its nature of use. Coal mining currently underway in Meghalaya was a corruption of this Constitutional Provision wherein private individuals having private interests in earning monetary benefits from minerals vested under the land are engaging in coal mining and are attempting to legitimize this act by claiming immunity through tribal autonomy over land ownership, whereas the truth is that the land belongs to the community and not even to the individual…”
Has the NGT ban not helped check this?
Following the mine collapse, Chief Minister Conrad Sangma said in a video that illegal mining does happen, and promised appropriate action. Agnes Kharshiing, a leading campaigner on issues including illegal mining, and her colleague Amita Sangma were attacked in East Jaintia Hills last month while trying to locate an illegal mine. “Activists speaking out have been threatened or attacked… Political elites are part of the nexus and this mafia is very powerful and dangerous,” activist Angela Rangad, member of the group Thma U Rangli Juki, told The Indian Express.
In its 2015 order, the NGT observed, “It is indisputable that orders of the Tribunal have been violated without exception… The State Government has failed to check illegal mining effectively and has also not framed the mining policy, mining plan and the guidelines as directed under the orders of the Tribunal.”
But does Meghalaya not have a policy?
The NGT finds the 2012 policy inadequate. The policy does not address rat-hole mining and instead states: “Small and traditional system of mining by local people in their own land shall not be unnecessarily disturbed.” In its 2015 order, the NGT observed: “The State of Meghalaya has promulgated a mining policy of 2012, which does not deal with rat-hole mining, but on the contrary, deprecates it.