Meghalaya mining accident: State may call off already disastrous rescue operation after consulting experts at site

  • It has been 36 days since 15 workers got trapped in a rat-hole mine in Meghalaya's East Jaintia Hills district.

  • The Indian Navy detected the body of one miner on Thursday.

  • The state government has been criticised for its handling of the rescue operation.

Shillong: With the detection of the first body inside the 320-feet-deep illegal rat-hole coal mine in Meghalaya's East Jaintia Hills district, the families of the 15 workers trapped inside the quarry are prepared for the worst.

On Thursday, the Indian Navy's remotely operated vehicle (ROV) detected a body 160 feet away from the main shaft. However, the body has not been retrieved or identified yet.

The agonising wait of over a month to know the fate of the 15 lives raises many questions on the will and preparedness of the state and Central governments to deal with such mining accidents.

Initially, the Meghalaya government's response to the disaster was lethargic. Coal India Limited received a formal request from the Meghalaya government on 26 December — 13 days after the tragedy — for certain equipment, including high-pressure pumps, and a team of experts to assist the rescuers at the mine.

 Meghalaya mining accident: State may call off already disastrous rescue operation after consulting experts at site

A mine being de-watered in Meghalaya. Image Courtesy: Kyrmenlang Uriah

It also took nearly 10 days for the pumps to reach the site. Despite the number of men and machines pressed into action to de-water the main shaft and nearby abandoned mines, the water level remains the same.

Even after India's best rescue agencies and experts from prestigious organisations involved in mining and mining-related operations converged at the mouth of the now ill-famous rat-hole mine, all that this month-long rescue operation could get out of the mine is crores of litres of water.

Talking about the stages of the botched-up rescue operation, mining expert and award-winning rescuer Jaswant Singh Gill opined that the approach of the operation was directionless, and there was no proper plan to de-water the mine.

"Pumping out water will not help until the rescuers find the source of water and plug the route," Gill said.

Gill had saved the lives of 65 miners in a similar incident back in 1989 when he was the chief mining engineer with Coal India at Raniganj in West Bengal.

On condition of anonymity, a sordar, or mine supervisor, in East Jaintia Hills said there are hundreds of coal mines in the area where the rescue operation is underway, and it would take more than 30 days to empty water from all these mines. He explained that it was tough to empty water from coal mines, and the government would require crores of rupees as all the mines are interconnected.

Rescue workers at the site of the Meghalaya mine tragedy. Image Courtesy: Kyrmenlang Uriah

Rescue workers at the site of the Meghalaya mine tragedy. Image Courtesy: Kyrmenlang Uriah

Meanwhile, Agnes Kharshiing, an activist who is has been advocating against illegal coal mining in Meghalaya, said rescue efforts had been delayed since the tragedy struck.

"In such an emergency situation that pertains to the safety of human lives, it seems the state government was not keen on an effective rescue operation right from the beginning, and it shows that there is no coordination at all," she said.

Agnes added that the Meghalaya government had failed the miners, and the absence of a blueprint of the illegal mine was an excuse. The government's failure to respond to Gill's advice to call for high-powered pumps from Coal India was one of the main reasons for the nearly-failed operation, the activist said.

Another activist, Angela Rangad, believes that the present operation to rescue the trapped miners is a face-saving attempt of the government.

More than 200 personnel from the navy, National Disaster Response Force, State Disaster Response Force, Odisha fire and disaster management services, Coal India, Kirloskar Brothers Limited and Pune-based KSB — two companies that supply pumps — are at the site of the disaster.

Coal India, Kirloskar Brothers and KSB supplied around 20 high-power pumps, and the Indian Navy deployed a 15-member diving team that arrived with specialised diving equipment, including a re-compression chamber and ROVs capable of searching underwater. The team from Odisha, which brought around 10 25 horse power pumps, is assisting them.

Time to call off the operation?

It has been 36 days since the tragedy. Although intensive efforts to rescue the trapped miners are still on, authorities have made no headway yet.

Deputy Chief Minister of Meghalaya Prestone Tynsong said the government will seek the opinion of the experts who have been engaged in the rescue operation before deciding on calling it off. Tynsong said the district administration and the department concerned will consult the experts on ground zero to assess the situation in the next few days.

"They tried their best, and they are doing it even today. Let us see for how many more days (the operation will continue," he added.

Revenue and Disaster Management Minister Kyrmen Shylla said the decision to call off the operation would be discussed at a later stage.

A costly affair

A month after the tragedy, there are a number of experts camped at the site. These include Dr Dewashish Kumar, a senior scientist at Hyderabad-based Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR)-National Geophysical Research Institute, and his team; his colleague Dr Niraj Kumar, a scientist with CSIR's Gravity and Magnetic Group, and his team; Jayanti Gogoi of Ground Penetrating Radar; Vineet Upadhyay, who is part of the ROV team from Chennai-based LCAP; and Dr Sudhir Kumar, a scientist with the National Institute of Hydrology in Roorkee.

Authorities involved in the rescue operation said that so far, they had spent around Rs 4 to 5 crore.

"The expenditure involved is for the pipes, petrol and diesel to run the pumps and the generators, and logistics for the rescuers," said an official of the Meghalaya government who is involved in the operation.

The state government also has to pay for the stay of the experts coming to the accident site in Meghalaya.

A mine owner, L Suchiang, explained that de-watering a mine shaft is an expensive affair. "We don't usually pump out water from the mines on our own. All of us, the mine owners, would collaborate to de-water the mines. It normally cost us around Rs 1 crore, that too when it was a shallow mine," he said, adding that the expense would also involve paying for the four-wheelers, powerful pumps, cranes and labour.

CM assured to adhere to environmental, safety norms

Chief Minister pf Meghalaya Conrad K Sangma met Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh to discuss the long-pending issue of illegal coal mining in the state. Claiming that the ban on mining had affected the socio-economic condition of the people, who are dependent on coal, as well as loss of revenue for the state, Sangma expressed his concerns on restarting regulated mining in Meghalaya.

Sangma assured Rajnath that the state will adhere to all the environmental and safety norms framed by the Government of India in permitting mining activities in Meghalaya.

The home minister has taken Sangma's request into consideration and is believed to have given a positive response, assuring the delegation from the North East that he would look into the matter.

Updated Date: Jan 19, 2019 21:57:23 IST