For A fortnight now, 15 miners have been trapped inside a coal mine at Ksan, in Saipung area of East Jaintia Hills district in Meghalaya. And for the first time on Wednesday, the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) divers, who have been carrying out search operations, reported a “foul odour”.
“That is not a good sign,” says Santosh Singh, NDRF Assistant Commandant, who is heading the rescue work. While he declines to comment further, NDRF personnel discuss that the “foul odour” could indicate that the miners are dead and the bodies are beginning to decompose. The workers were trapped in the ‘rat-hole’ mine on December 13, after water from the nearby Lytein river gushed into it. While the water level in the mine has not receded, the rescue personnel have not attempted to pump out any water since Monday, as the two 25-HP pumps have proved ineffective.
The NDRF has asked the district administration for at least ten 100-HP pumps. The request has been forwarded to the state government, but no action has been taken so far. The NDRF has 70 personnel while the State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) has 22 at the spot.
In the last 14 days, only three helmets have been recovered. Rescue officials say they have not been able to find any clue on the status of the trapped miners, or spot their location in the over 300-feet pit and adjoining ‘rat-hole’ sized tunnels.
On Wednesday afternoon, as three NDRF divers get ready to be lowered into the pit to check the level of water, which is currently about 70-feet deep, Singh briefs them. “Please check whether the water level has gone down. I don’t think it will happen without fresh pumping. Check for the water’s odour and if you see anything floating on the surface,” he says.
The crane lowers the men down. After 15 minutes, they whistle, and are lifted up. The divers tell Singh that for the first time, there is a “foul odour”. “Miracles do happen. As rescue personnel, we keep our hopes up till the last minute. But practically speaking, in this case, the chances of rescuing the men are very slim. Here, the conditions are much more complicated than the rescue of children who were trapped in the Thailand cave recently,” says Singh.
“We have not been able to reduce the water level inside the mine because the pit, through one of the rat-hole tunnels, is connected to the adjoining river. The river water is seeping into it, keeping the water level constant at 70 feet, although we are trying to pump it out,” he says.
The NDRF divers, as per their training and guidelines, only attempt rescue operations when the water level is less than 40 feet. Explaining the risks involved in going beyond 40 feet, Singh says: “The divers may suffer nose bleed. Our body cannot take that kind of pressure”.
“Since we have not been able to go inside, we don’t know the answers to three main questions: how many rat-hole sized tunnels have been dug at the base of the pit to extract coal; what is the size of the base area; and what is its depth,” says Singh, emphasising the need for more powerful pumps.
The entire area of around 5 sq km surrounding the Lytein river is dotted with at least 80 abandoned coal mines. Singh says they don’t know whether the water entered through a rat-hole tunnel of this mine, or of an adjacent mine. “Underneath, it’s a labyrinth of rat-hole tunnels of the multiple small mines,” he says.
Despite being banned by the National Green Tribunal in 2014, the ‘rat-hole’ technique is a prevalent practice in Meghalaya. It involves digging of very small tunnels, usually only 3-4 feet high, through which workers enter and extract coal.
Meanwhile, Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma tweeted on Wednesday evening: “NDRF and state government have been continuously working on the rescue operations. Scale of operation is a major challenge as water from a river has entered the mines. GoI was very prompt in sending their best people to help in the rescue operations.”