TWO weeks after 15 workers in Meghalaya were trapped while mining coal using the “rat-hole technique,” and are feared dead now, Lok Sabha MP from Shillong constituency Vincent H Pala (50) told the House Thursday this should be “regularised”. This method — with narrow tunnels dug in mountains for workers to move through and extract coal — was slammed as illegal, unscientific and harmful, and banned by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) on April 17, 2014.
Pala made this demand but what he did not spell out was that he was also a prominent coal businessman in the state. The Congress MP, a native of East Jaintia Hills district and an engineer by qualification, has been vocal about lifting the NGT ban on illegal coal mining in the state. In fact, Pala isn’t the only one. About a dozen politicians allegedly own coal mines themselves or have relatives as mine owners and were named by a Citizens’ Report prepared by civil society groups in Meghalaya and submitted to the Supreme Court earlier this month.
The report, submitted through the amicus curiae in the case, Colin Gonsalves, lists Pala, four ministers in the Conrad Sangma-led government and seven MLAs alleging these men or their relatives are coal-mine owners. “This is just a sample from the political class — an independent audit of coal mines will reveal that many bureaucrats, technocrats, police people are involved in mining business,” the report said.
Alleging collusion between politicians, the state machinery and mine owners, the report cited this as a primary reason for illegal mining in the state despite the ban.
“NGT ruling has been flouted as there is a serious conflict of interest with many ministers, MLAs, MDCs, Administrators who are involved in coal mining. For eg. in the current govt as well as previous govt and currently in the opposition, (there are) MLAs and ministers (who) are coal miners, weigh-bridge owners and operators and /or transporters.”
When asked about his involvement in coal mining, Pala told The Indian Express, “I had 30-40 coal mines but I have stopped mining in them since the NGT ban. Actually, most miners have stopped fresh mining after the ban but there are few who are doing it. Of course, so much of already extracted coal was lying near the mines sites in the jungles when the ban came, that mine owners appealed for allowing its transportation. Now the coal you see by the side of roads and being loaded into trucks is the coal that was mined before the 2014 ban.”
Coal mined prior to April 2014, can be transported upto January 31, 2019, the Supreme Court said in another order this month allowing the state to continue extending transport permits.
The Indian Express tracked down some of the politicians named in the report and their refrain was they owned mines but have stopped mining after the ban.
* Kyrmen Shylla, MLA from Khliehriat (the headquarters of the EJH district) and a cabinet minister in charge of, among others, the Disaster Management Department and the Social Welfare Department. When contacted, Shylla said: “We had around 15 mines, and we abandoned them after the ban.” A reason why illegal mining still goes on, according to Shylla, is probably many people have no other option to earn their livelihood than to be in the coal business.
* Lakmen Rymbui, Cabinet Minister holding the environment and forest portfolio. Rymbui said: “Yes, we had several mines — but that was before the ban.”
* Comingone Ymbon, Cabinet Minister holding PWD portfolio. Ymbon said: “Our family had many mines but we stopped all mining in 2013, before the NGT ban came. The accident is a proof that illegal mining is going on.”
* Sniawbhalang Dhar, Cabinet minister with Commerce and Industries and Transport portfolios, his brother-in-law Wailadmiki Shylla, an MLA, and nephew Dasakhiat Lamare, an MLA. Dhar could not be contacted despite multiple calls on both his available numbers.
Pala defended his demand to revoke the ban saying, “I stand for regulation of coal mining in Meghalaya. It should be regulated in such a way that the environment and ecology is preserved and people also get a chance to mine coal, like they have in the past 50-60 years.” His declared assets, according to affidavits, was over Rs 49 crore in 2014. In the “non-agricultural land ownership” category of immovable assets, he had declared property worth over Rs 39 crore.
“How can a Parliamentarian even say that rat-hole mining should be legalised? Does he not know how dangerous a process it is? It’s all big money at play here in this coal mining business — election is near,” said prominent activist Agnes Kharshiing, who survived an attack on her life last month when she was trying to track the origin of a truck laden with what she claimed to be freshly-mined coal in East Jaintia Hills district.
The NGT’s 2014 order had noted that the counsel for the petitioners had explained to the court 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.
Pala, however, said the laws which regulate mining in other parts of the country cannot be followed in Meghalaya because the nature of coal deposit is very different from what we find in other parts of the country. “The coal seam is thin, its location is deep and the overburden on top is large. Coal mining gives government huge revenue — so it should be regulated and not banned. Techniques similar to rat-hole mining is practised in parts of our neighbouring state of Assam also, but the NGT has not banned that. I feel the NGT order is biased against our state,” he said.
In fact, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is now in coalition in the state government, had said in its vision document for the last Assembly elections in Meghalaya that it will “put back on track the coal mining issue in 180 days of forming the government”. The National People’s Party (NPP) heads the ruling Meghalaya Democratic Alliance (MDA) government, with the BJP as a coalition partner.
Meanwhile, a 15-member Indian Navy diving team from Visakhapatnam will help rescue operations Saturday. The team, a statement said, will have specialised equipment including a recompression chamber and remotely operated search vehicles.