He was running an illegal makeshift mine, sending workers down dangerous “rat holes” located near a surging river to salvage coal without safeguards or safety equipment. He gave jobs to several unemployed men in a remote village battling poverty, while supporting his own family of six and 20 relatives who depended on him.
Between these two narratives surrounding the mine collapse in Meghalaya’s Ksan on December 13, stands the man at the centre of it all — Jrin Shullet, the 32-year-old mine owner who is now in jail.
The miners trapped inside were first reported missing, as water from the Lytein river gushed into the rat-hole tunnels, and are now feared dead. Shullet is in jail, facing various charges including causing death by
negligence and mining without permission.
The Indian Express tracked down Shullet’s village in the East Jaintia Hills district, and spoke to residents, officials and miners, to find that multiple strands bound by two threads — jobs and poverty — prompted businessmen like him to continue flouting a ban on “rat hole mining” imposed by the National Green Tribunal in 2014.
“Most people here are illiterate, and there are no jobs. Almost everyone is involved in mining in some way — extracting, loading on trucks,” says Lamsuk Langstang, the headman of Narwan. “It has also helped the village because miners donate around Rs 5-6 lakh every year to the secondary school run by the community,” he says.
The state government estimates that its coal reserves add up to 576.48 million metric tonnes. And former miners say profit depends on quality and the amount extracted. “One metric tonne of coal is expected to fetch anywhere above Rs 5,000,” says a former mine owner, who shut shop after the NGT order. A 2013 report of the Comptroller and Auditor General placed the “invoice value” per metric tonne at Rs 4,850.
Shullet is listed as a coal miner in the ‘Directory of Establishments’ in Meghalaya’s Sixth Economic Census 2013 for establishments having eight or more workers. In Narwan, however, no one knows how much he earned from the Ksan mine, which is about an hour away by road, or whether he was running mines elsewhere, too.
What is known, say residents, is that he was operating with a partner, James Sukhlain, who is absconding. “James was the ‘sardar’, a term used here to describe the manager,” says a former miner. What is also known, is that workers were paid “anywhere between Rs 1,500- Rs 2,000 per day, based on the coal they extract”.
“Jrin has been mining coal for years, even after the ban because mining is a good source of income in the Jaintia hills,” says Shullet’s elder brother Korin, a labourer who is now unemployed. “Apart from his wife and four children, he was financially supporting the families of 20 relatives,” he says.
But at the same time, officials say, Shullet did not provide the workers that he employed any safety equipment and insurance cover, or put in place a compensatory mechanism in case of accidents.
“The land where this mine stood belongs to another village’s ‘ilaka’, which is public land controlled by the community,” says Richard Singh Lyngdoh, a member of the Jaintia Hills Autonomous District Council. This is why, say sources, Shullet tied up with Sukhlain, who is from that “ilaka” but did not have the money to run the mine on his own.
“The village community often allows a local resident to take ownership of a mine and carry out mining,” says a senior police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity.
However, mining sector representatives point fingers at the lack of government oversight. For instance, the Meghalaya Mines and Mineral Policy, 2012, does not address “rat-hole mining”. It’s been four years since the NGT described that policy as “inadequate” and asked the state to formulate a new, more effective approach.
“Coal mining has been going on in Meghalaya for a long time. But we never had a policy to ensure effective guidelines and regulations,” says Balios Swer, president, Jaintia Coal Mine Owners and Dealers Association.
Speaking to The Indian Express days after the Ksan tragedy, Kyrmen Shylla, MLA from Khliehriat, the headquarters of East Jantia Hills, made a startling admission: Mining still goes on probably “because many people have no other option to earn their livelihood than to be in the coal business”. Startling, because Shylla is also the state minister in charge of two key departments at the heart of the tragedy — Social Welfare and Disaster Management.