New Delhi: The Centre told the Supreme Court on Thursday that it was facing difficulties in rescuing 15 miners trapped since December 13 in an illegal coal mine in Meghalaya as there was no blueprint of the 355-feet well which is a "maze of rat holes".
The government told a bench comprising Justice A K Sikri and S Abdul Nazeer that the illegal mine was located near a river and seepage of water from the river was hindering the rescue operation.
The bench observed that initially "no serious efforts" were made to rescue these trapped persons but now it appears as if the authorities are making efforts.
The court directed the Centre and the Meghalaya government to file a status report on 7 January, detailing the steps taken and also the progress made in the rescue operation.
The top court was hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) which has sought urgent steps for rescuing these miners.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing the Centre, told the court about the steps taken by the authorities, including central government officials, for undertaking swift rescue operation in Meghalaya.
He said that since the mine was illegal, no blueprint was available and they were facing difficulty in rescue operation as "a maze of rat holes have been created and nobody knows where this goes".
He said the 355-feet well was like a 20-storey underground building.
The rat-hole mine, atop a hillock fully covered with trees in Meghalaya's East Jaintia Hills district, was flooded when water from the nearby Lytein river gushed into it, trapping 15 miners.
Rat-hole mining involves digging of narrow tunnels, usually three or four feet high, for workers to enter and extract coal. The horizontal tunnels are often termed "rat holes" as each just about fits one person.
Mehta said there were a large number of mines in the five-square-kilometre area and members of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), divers and a dog squad had reached the spot immediately after the incident.
Referring to the operation conducted to rescue a football team trapped inside a cave system in Thailand in June-July 2018, in which an Indian firm had offered high-powered pumps, he said the blueprint of the cave had been available and unlike the illegal coal mine, the caves had air pockets through which oxygen could pass.
"The water is muddy there (in the mine). Divers of NDRF cannot go beyond a particular depth, so specialised divers of the Navy were called there," he said.
Mehta said that suction of water from the mine was being done through high powered water pumps but they have not been getting the desired result due to seepage of water from the river. He added high-powered water pumps of the Kirloskar Brothers Ltd, which have the capacity of emptying out 1,800 litres per minute, were already deployed there, but the water levels were not receding due to the river seepage.
Mehta informed the bench that a meeting was held on Thursday and joint secretaries of the ministries of coal, home and defence, a senior officer of the Navy and officials of Coal India Ltd attended it.
When he said that the mine was illegal, the bench asked, "The problem is why should these poor miners suffer? Unless the water is taken out (from the mine), it will be difficult to do a rescue operation. Can't the seepage from the river be stopped?" Mehta said the authorities were unable to locate the seepage in the mine.
After he apprised the court of the steps taken so far for the rescue of the trapped miners, the bench observed, "It seems they are making efforts."
Senior advocate Anand Grover, appearing for petitioner Aditya N Prasad, said authorities had not taken appropriate steps at the outset for rescuing these persons. He said that according to a news report, high-powered water pumps were not working there and only one generator was being used at the spot.
To this, Justice Sikri observed, "What we can supervise or oversee is whether all genuine efforts were being made or not. A journalist who is there (at the spot) may not know the technical aspects. We cannot go on what a journalist understands."
Grover referred to a January 1 letter from the office of the Deputy Commissioner of Meghalaya and said it was mentioned in the communication that the situation was not good there and they were facing a financial crunch as well in the rescue operation.
He urged the court to send an independent commissioner at the spot to see the ground reality and verify the claims of the authorities.
"Joint effort of all of us is to see if they (the miners) are alive. They must be taken out from there," the bench said, adding, "Initially, there were no serious efforts which is normally the problem".
Grover said authorities can take assistance of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) as they can provide satellite thermal images of the insides of the mine.
The bench, while posting the case for hearing on January 7, asked the Centre and the Meghalaya government to address in their status report the issues raised by Grover regarding the January 1 letter and also on the media report referred by him.
The apex court on Thursday had expressed dissatisfaction over the steps taken by the Meghalaya government to rescue 15 miners trapped in the illegal coal mine and had said "prompt, immediate and effective" operation was needed to rescue them as it was a matter of life and death.
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Updated Date: Jan 04, 2019 18:32:33 IST