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Plight of trapped miners in Meghalaya raises important question: Just how low will mining elite stoop to make a profit?

Only by a strange twist of fate will the miners — trapped in the flooded mine at Ksan in Meghalaya's East Jaintia Hills for over two weeks — survive the catastrophe. How can anyone inside a 70-foot vertical shaft and man-sized horizontal tables where coal is dug by people — more often by children whose mobility is easier inside these dank, dark mines — remain alive after 15 days? The miners use pick-axes to dig the coal and when enough is dug, they load it onto a box which is then pulled up by an equally crude method.

Anyone going into these rat holes knows that the mine roof could cave in any time and they could be trapped inside and left to die. The modus operandi is that people going inside the 70-foot shaft have to squat and work at digging the coal. The horizontal rat holes are no more than two or three feet high, so there's no way anyone can stand and work. That's how difficult rat hole mining is.

The miners — four from Assam, seven from the Garo Hills of Meghalaya and three from the local area in East Jaintia Hills — have been trapped inside the flooded mine for 15 days. There are hundreds of abandoned coal pits in the area and when miners dig around, they are not aware that they could hit an abandoned mine filled with water. That's how water entered the mines. Such mine accidents have been taking place since 1992.

 Plight of trapped miners in Meghalaya raises important question: Just how low will mining elite stoop to make a profit?

Rescue teams at the mine in Meghalaya where 15 workers have been trapped for 15 days. Image Courtesy: 101Reporters

They recurred in 2012, 2013 and 2014 when due to various reasons such as the cables of a crane carrying coal snapping midway and falling on workers, crushing them to death or because of the collapse of a mine roof. Coal-mining on a commercial scale in Meghalaya began way back in 1972. At the time, there were no televisions cameras to focus on mine tragedies. People from the area say they are not sure how many people are buried inside those mines when the mine floods or caves in due to shocks.

Unless some family members come looking for them, mine owners don't bother if people are trapped inside. It's considered a professional hazard where the miner opts to enter the mines knowing fully well the risks involved, but is driven to undertake this horrendous task because there is money in the job. In a sense these miners are the economic slaves of the 21st Century. They are forced by circumstances to undertake this precarious activity.

What is appalling in all of this is how long it took this news of the mine tragedy to travel to the rest of the country, although local papers with an online presence have been reporting on this from Day One. The national media only took cognisance of this news after around a week had passed and social media was rife with images of the mine in East Jaintia Hills. And then Rahul Gandhi decided to tweet about the tragedy three days ago, only because he needed to hit back at Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was in Assam but could not spare another 20 minutes to travel to the site of the tragedy. And now there is a full-fledged political battle about who has done what even as the miners are either struggling to stay alive or are, by now, perhaps dead.

The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) present in the East Jaintia Hills, as admitted by its commandant SK Singh, cannot dive beyond 30 feet — 40 feet short of the levels of water in the mine. Equipment, if it arrives, will come too late in the day to make a difference to human lives. The Kirloskar Brothers who manufacture powerful pumps that helped save the 13 young boys and their coaches from a flooded cave in Thailand have assured all help. The NDRF says it needs at least 10 pumps, each with horsepower of 100. The problem is that the requisition for this life-saving equipment went out too late. There are so many questions that need to be raised.

Why is it that not a single minister from the MDA government led by Conrad Sangma, visited the site of the tragedy? It was only on Thursday (14 days after the disaster) that two ministers —Lahkmen Rymbui (education minister) and Kyrmen Shylla (Minister for Disaster Management) — visited the ill-fated Ksan mine. The Congress MLA from Rajabala, Garo Hills, Dr Azad Zaman, visited the mine on the second day after the incident because seven of his constituents were among those trapped inside. We are certainly lacking in compassion or have reached a point of compassion fatigue.

What is even more appalling is the response of the Congress MP, Vincent Pala who raised a Zero Hour motion in Parliament on Thursday. We imagined his first priority would be to call attention to the plight of the trapped miners but, instead took the opportunity to argue on behalf of the coal mafia, asking that rat hole mining should now be regularised because it is a traditional practice. It is pathetic that someone should even ask that such an inhuman practice be allowed to carry on. It's like asking Sati to be legitimised, because it is part of tradition.

That the MP took the opportunity to speak at this important forum not for the miners and to question the Central government’s apparent lack of empathy and responsiveness, but to plead for a selfish cause just goes to show how callous the political class has become. Pala and his family members also own coal mines and have acquired immense wealth from this trade.

The coal business has created a wealthy tribal elite that has now entered politics and literally runs the government. It is instructive that even the BJP promised to lift the ban imposed on coal mining by the National Green Tribunal in April 2014. The ban came after the rivers flowing from Meghalaya to Assam were poisoned with Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) and a students' body from that state went to the Supreme Court. The NGT imposed the ban, but did not have the wherewithal to keep a watch on whether illegal mining is continuing, which it is.

Interestingly, even a month ago, the state government denied that there was any illegal coal mining happening in Meghalaya. And yet the media in the state reports consistently on how coal is illegally transported. This mining tragedy has therefore exposed the government's lie. Interestingly, in Meghalaya, the government and police officials also own mines. Hence, the collusion is complete.

Meghalaya has estimated coal reserves of 559 million tonnes (MT), spread over an area of 213.9 square kilometres (approximately one percent of the total geographical area of the state). On a daily basis, around five million MT of coal used to be exported to Bangladesh via the Tamabil border. That natural resources that generate revenue for the state should be mined goes without saying, but such resources must be scientifically mined without too much adverse impact on humans and the environment.

The NGT had asked the state government to come up with a mining policy back in 2014, but the mine-owners have been putting pressure that rat hole mining should continue. Now they are using the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution to argue in favour of traditional rat hole mining. Clearly, India's idea of positive discrimination vide the Sixth Schedule that was designed to protect the culture and tradition of the tribals of North East India is today becoming a double-edged sword. The Sixth Schedule is being bandied around as an instrument of the ruling mining elite.

How low will they stoop in this wealth-creation project is the question.

The author is editor, The Shillong Times

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Updated Date: Dec 28, 2018 15:54:59 IST