The mining tragedy at Ksan, in Lumthari, East Jaintia Hills, Meghalaya would have gone unreported had there not been a lone survivor — Sayeb Ali of Panbari, Assam. This is not the first time that a tragedy has struck the state’s rat-hole mines. If this inhuman form of coal mining is not halted completely, we can be sure that many more labourers will be buried because mine caving accompanied with flooding is not an unknown phenomenon.
In 1992, nearly 30 mine labourers in South Garo Hills were caught in a similar flood — about half of them escaped death somehow. The rest were never found. In 2012, 15 miners were buried in a mine in Garo Hills. Their bodies too were not recovered. Most of the mine workers are migrant labourers, forced by stark poverty to undertake this hazardous work.
Nearly three weeks after the disaster in Ksan, pumps were sourced from the Odisha Fire Service. These can suck out 1,600 litres per minute. However, the water in the mine remained at the same level. Similar pumps were deployed to pump out water from the surrounding abandoned mines as well but the water level went down by a mere six inches. The pump manufacturing company, Kirloskar Brothers, had earlier talked of sending100 HP pumps but these have not yet arrived at the accident site, and water continues to leak into the ill-fated mine. Mining expert Jaswant Singh Gill, who is known for having rescued 65 miners in 1989 from the Mahabir mines in Raniganj, West Bengal, has rightly asked: Do the agencies present at the site, the NDRF, the Indian Navy divers and mining engineers from Coal India Ltd, have knowledge of the area’s topography? And can they get a handle on where exactly the water is flowing into the mine in order to drain out its source or seal it completely?
On December 29, when I visited the mine, the NDRF told me that the water is 176-feet deep. The navy divers cannot plunge straight into a perpendicular hole, which branches out into horizontal rat holes. They are trained to dive into the sea and in open waters, not into a hole that is barely 10 square feet. The mine in the Jaintia Hills is not likely to have enough oxygen, even though it is said to have some air pockets. Moreover, the water inside is very cold, perhaps even freezing — we experienced this while crossing the knee-deep Lytein river at three places to reach the mine site. One ardently hopes that the miners can survive the cold inside, considering this is winter.
On visiting the mine site, one gets the impression that the rescue personnel, while giving their best, don’t actually know what’s in store for them. The East Khasi Hills District Administration has been found wanting from day one. Much time was lost before the rescue operation was launched. I put this down to the absence of a Standard Operation Procedure for such a mining disaster. The mines are privately owned and do not follow any regulatory protocol. When an accident happens, the administration is caught in a bind and does not know what to do first or how to go about it.
There was delay in requisitioning the high-powered pumps and the NDRF is right in saying that the district administration should have been equipped with these pumps in the first place, given the history of mining disasters in the region. The state government was caught napping. Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma is yet to visit the site. Two of his ministers, including the minister for disaster management who actually represents the area in the state legislature, visited the site two weeks after the accident. Perhaps the government is embarrassed at being caught unawares.
Just two weeks before the disaster, Sangma and a few other Meghalaya ministers, denied that coal mining was continuing illegally in the state after the National Green Tribunal banned it in 2014. But their statements were essentially meant to convince the Supreme Court that all the coal lying near the collieries was mined before the NGT ban. The pleas had the desired effect: Last month, the Court allowed transportation of coal till January 31. But the mine disaster has exposed the state government’s lie.
The Meghalaya disaster did not get the kind of media attention that an accident in Thailand in June last year did — a school football team strayed into a cave even when there were clear instructions not to enter it. The cave was flooded and the boys could not find their way out. India sent Kirloskar pumps to drain out the water from the cave. British navy divers finally rescued the 13 boys. But Meghalaya is in the back of beyond and when the state government is slow in seeking help, because it has to defend its own back, things are bound to go awry. What comes out clearly from this incident is that the lives of the poor and the voiceless don’t really matter, not to the mine owner, not to the state government certainly not the Centre, and not even to large sections of the media. We live in our own bubbles.
Coal mining in Meghalaya enjoys political patronage because elections are funded by coal barons. Several elected MLAs are coal-mine owners. In fact, it would be interesting to find out which politician, which bureaucrat and which police official does not own a coal mine. The MP from Shillong constituency, Vincent Pala, and his family, own mines. Recently Pala raised a zero hour motion on the mine tragedy but instead of calling for strict action against illegal mining, he pleaded for the legalisation of rat hole mining. This is a blatant display of self-interest.