A day after a coal mine in Meghalaya’s East Jaintia Hills district collapsed and got flooded, 13 trapped workers were yet to be traced even as disaster relief force personnel continued their operations, police said on Friday.
The mine is located at Ksan in Saipung area of the district and stands next to Lytein river, whose water is said to have gushed into the mine.
Despite NGT ban, ‘rat-hole mining’ continues
The ‘rat-hole mining’ technique — which accounts for most mines in Meghalaya — was banned by the National Green Tribunal in 2014. The technique primarily comprises digging a narrow tunnel to reach coal seams underground. At the bottom tunnel, where coal seams are found, ‘rat holes’ — just big enough for a worker to enter — are dug in several directions for workers to move in. The NGT order noted that the counsel for the petitioners had explained how “rat-hole mining operations have been in practice in the Jaintia Hills of the State of Meghalaya 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”. “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 number of individuals including employees/workers,” the order said.
The mine has been termed “illegal” by activists, since coal mining in Meghalaya using the ‘rat-hole mining’ technique — which accounts for most mines in the state including the one in which the accident occurred — has been banned by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2014.
Chief Minister Conrad Sangma Friday said the incident was “unfortunate” and accepted that “illegal mining” was going on. He said, “At the same time, we are aware that illegal activities were going on. And appropriate action will be taken at the appropriate time against people who are involved in illegal mining…”
Superintendent of Police Sylvester Nongtnger told The Indian Express that the NDRF and SDRF carried out search and rescue operations but the bodies are yet to be traced. “We have registered a case against James Sukhlain, the owner of the mine,” he added.
The 13 labourers hail from the East Jaintia Hills and West Garo Hills districts of Meghalaya and Assam. They have been identified as brothers Omor Ali and Shirapat Ali, Mezamur Islam, Mominul Islam, Amir Hussain, Munirul Islam, Saiar Islam, Mozid Sheikh, Raziul Islam, Samsul Haque, Chal Dhkar, Long Dhkar and Nilam Dhkar.
Amzad Ali, a cousin of Omor (27) and Shirapat (25), who are from Magurmari village in West Garo Hills, told The Indian Express over phone that the two brothers had left home to work in coal mines 15 days ago. “Omor has three minor children and Shirapat has two,” Ali said.
Another relative, Aziar Rahman, said, “Whether this coal mine is legal or not, we don’t know, our boys had gone to work to feed themselves and their families.”
The accident comes on the heels of an attack in November on activist Agnes Kharshiing, who has been vocal against the continuation of mining in Meghalaya despite the NGT order, and her colleague Amita Sangma by goons hired by the coal mafia in the same district while they were trying to locate an illegal mine.
According to available data, when the NGT ban was ordered, the annual coal production was nearly 6 million metric tonnes (MT).