Travelling to reach the flooded coal mine on a remote hillock in Meghalaya’s East Jaintia Hills district, where at least 15 workers are trapped for 15 days now and feared dead, you need to take a left from the main road near the police station at district headquarters Khliehriat.
On the two-hour-long journey on that route to reach the site, Ksan, both sides of the road are dotted with so many heaps of coal you lose count. At several deposits, the heaps are loaded into waiting trucks, to be sent off to a destination in neighbouring Assam or beyond.
For anyone travelling through the area for the first time, the sight of such large coal deposits and trucks being loaded with coal might come as a jolt considering that the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had in 2014 banned “illegal” mining of coal (especially mentioning the popular rat-hole technique) in the state.
But the reason one sees so many coal-laden trucks on the roads of Meghalaya is because, in at least seven consequent orders, the NGT and then the Supreme Court, hearing petitions by coal-mine owners, allowed the transportation of coal mined prior to the implementation of the ban on April 17, 2014. And as per the latest SC order dated December 4, transportation of coal mined prior to the ban was extended to January 31, 2019.
It’s this window — four years and counting — that Meghalaya activists allege has been exploited by a slew of miners to carry out illegal mining with authorities looking the other way.
When the NGT ban was ordered, Meghalaya’s annual coal production was nearly 6 million tonnes. Said environmental activist HH Mohrmen, who is based in Jowai, West Jaintia Hills district: “Just as the ban came, miners exaggerated their declared amounts of previously mined coal and then the freshly mined coal was transported. That has continued. It is impossible that this huge deposits were all extracted prior to 2014,” he said.
Mohrmen isn’t off the mark. A three-member NGT team that visited the East Jaintia Hills last month found evidence to back this. Committee chairman Justice (Retd) B P Katakey told the press after his visit that they found “freshly mined coal, certainly not the ones that were mined way back in 2014”.
Additional District Magistrate of East Jaintia Hills S S Syiemlieh said that as per the administration’s assessment, all coal being transported was mined prior to the 2014 ban. But he admits that “we do not have any scientific method to check the time when it was extracted. We rely on written declarations by mine owners.”
Activists point to the accident at Ksan and the assault on leading anti-mining activist Agnes Kharshiing and her colleague in November as evidene of illegal mining. On Thursday, the two primary accused in the attack, including a local leader of the ruling National People’s Party (NPP), surrendered before police.
In fact, violations were reported earlier too. Way back in March 2015, the NGT noted that three of its Commissioners inspected areas in East Jaintia hills of Meghalaya and “specifically recorded that they found fresh coal extracted and being carried in the garb of transportation. Inter-alia they noticed that top most layer was fresh and dark in colour.”
When the NGT allowed transport of coal, it set guidelines — permits that would be checked at state exit points, a cap of 9 tonnes per truck and stickers saying “coal transported under NGT order”.
These are being flouted, said activist Kharshiing. “Fresh black colour coal – evident that it is freshly mined – is being transported. Amounts much more than 9 MT is transported and most trucks do not have any stickers. Moreover, so many trucks are detained for not having the challan (travel permit) which all those who had paid royalty for coal mined before the ban have,” Kharshiing said.
“Moreover, the workers – many of them non-tribals who migrated from other states – are paid very less and there is no system of any insurance for them. Serious labour exploitation is going on,” Kharshiing added. Kharshiing said that the allowance for transporting coal mined prior to 2014 has led to flourishing of illegal mines even now. Soon after the news of the workers being trapped in the mine in Ksan broke, even Meghalaya chief minister Conrad Sangma had admitted that the “illegal mining” was going on in the state and promised strict action against those involved.
In Meghalaya, according to government estimates, total coal reserves are estimated at 576.48 million metric tonnes, of which 133.13 are “proved” and 443.35 are “inferred”.
Said Balios Swer, a politician and president of the Jaintia Coal Mine Owners and Dealers Association, said: “We are not doing any illegal mining after the ban. Yes, there could be a few who are doing – like in the cave where the unfortunate accident happened – but is an exception.”