There seems to be no hope at the end of the tunnel for the 15 labourers trapped in a coal mine a fortnight ago, as search operations have been suspended by the Meghalaya government for want of high-powered pumps to flush out water from the pit.
Four years after the National Green Tribunal ordered a ban on coal mining in Meghalaya, illegal practices continue unabated in the state, putting lives at risk every day.
A top police officer told PTI that it took them long to locate the quarry as local people were scared to divulge information, fearing a backlash from mine owners.
Sylvester Nongtynger, the East Jaintia Hills superintendent of police, said he came to know about the accident from Rajabala MLA Azad Aman.
“It took the police hours to locate the mine as the villagers feigned ignorance about the accident. They are afraid that mine owners might cause them harm. Some who consider mining to be their only means of livelihood fear police action may add to their woes,” he said.
A month ago, rights activist Agnes Kharshiing and her companion were attacked by a group of people who were suspected to be members of coal mining mafia in East Jaintia Hills district.
Kharshiing had reportedly captured photographs of illegal rat-hole mining in the district and was stopped by miscreants on their way back.
Rat-hole mining involves digging of narrow tunnels, usually 3-4 feet high, for workers to enter and extract coal. The horizontal tunnels are often termed “rat-holes”, as each just about fits one person.
According to government reports, the coal mining industry was among the biggest revenue earners for the state, generating about Rs 700 crore annually, prior to its ban in 2014.
The National Green Tribunal had cited safety of miners as one of the reasons when it clamped down on coal mining in the state.
Heaps of freshly dug coal could be seen dumped on both sides of the road that approaches Lumthari village, where the miners were trapped on December 13, from Khliehriat, the district headquarters of East Jaintia Hills.
District Deputy Commissioner F M Dopth told this PTI correspondent to take security cover if he intended to tour the village as local people are agitated over the incident.
Three from the village are among the 15 labourers who got trapped in the mine when water from nearby Lytein river gushed into it. A senior home department official said the district police force do not have adequate personnel to deal with the problem.
“There are less than 100 police officers posted in the district. East Jaintia Hills, spanning an area of 2,000 sq km, has only 26 armed constables, 31 unarmed constables, 12 sub-inspectors and three inspectors. That isn’t enough to curb a menace, which has only grown in proportions over the years,” he said.
Nongtynger, on his part, said he had written to the headquarters for sanctioning more posts in the district for effective implementation of the NGT order.
“Despite limited resources, over 100 arrests were made and an equal number of coal-laden trucks seized since the ban was ordered,” he said.
A three-member panel, formed in August by the NGT, is assessing the steps taken by the state government to restore the environment damaged due to rat-hole mining.
Retired Justice B P Kakoti, who is heading the panel, recently visited East Jaintia Hills district and sought help from North Eastern Space Application Centre at Umiam, near here, to use satellite imagery for authentic proofs of illegal mining.
“The judicial panel will submit a report before the NGT within a month and all facts and figures of the illegal mining activities will be taken into account,” he said.
A group of coal miners had challenged the ban on haulage of already extracted coal, following which the NGT relaxed transportation rules temporarily.
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court set January 31 as deadline for transporting the extracted coal.
According to Kakoti, “Miners are taking advantage of the order and digging out fresh coal.”
Opposition Congress leader H M Shangpliang accused the state government of facilitating illegal mining activities in the state.
“Without the involvement of those in the government and their whole hearted support, how can illegal mining and transportation take place openly?” he reasoned.
He also said that the state government had failed to live up to its promise to curb the menace.
“The government should provide alternative livelihood for the families of people in mining areas who are affected by the ban,” he said.
Activist Kharshiing’s brother John, who heads an organisation of tribal body chiefs (Syiem aka Raja) in the state, said the “ban had come across a rude shock for the mine owners, who just could not accept the fact that the NGT controlled activities on their land”.
Unlike other parts of the country, land in Meghalaya is owned privately or by a community, under customary laws and protected by the Autonomous District Councils formed under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution.
“The local people still have a problem with the NGT ban. They are yet to come to terms with it,” he added.
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