Insights into Editorial: A tragedy that was long in the making
Context of Rat-hole Mining:
Recently, the collapse of a coal mine in Meghalaya’s East Jaintia Hills in which 15 workers were trapped, has thrown the spotlight on a procedure known as “rat-hole mining”.
The disaster that struck a coal mine at Ksan in Meghalaya’s Jaintia Hills district, trapping at least 13 workers, is a shocking reminder that a fast-growing economy such as India continues to allow Dickensian mining practices.
India being home to some of the worst mine disasters, such as Chasnala near Dhanbad in 1975 in which more than 370 people were killed, the full spectrum of mining activity should be tightly regulated.
- It involves digging of very small tunnels, usually only 3-4 feet high, without any pillars to prevent collapse, in which workers (often children) enter and extract coal.
- The National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned it in 2014 on grounds of it being unscientific and unsafe for workers. However, the state government appealed the order in the Supreme Court.
- Even after ban, it remains the prevalent procedure for coal mining in Meghalaya as no other method would be economically viable in Meghalaya, where the coal seam is extremely thin.
A Citizen’s Report (prepared by civil society groups in Meghalaya) observes that the State’s mineral wealth has been a curse. It says: “Coal mining in Meghalaya operates as a ‘shadow’ economy,
There are other issues that need to be highlighted:
The trapped miners were being racially profiled in the minds of the people and the state.
Of the 15 miners, only three were locals from the nearby village of Lumthari.
The rest were Muslims from Garo Hills, Meghalaya, and Bodoland, Assam. Their socio-economic profile also worked against them.
At least 200 men from villages have died of tuberculosis and breathing complications after working in these stone-crushing units.
They were the poorest of the poor who took a huge risk to enter a mine and dig for coal without any safety gear.
There are many questions that arise with respect to rat-hole mining of coal:
why does the state allow this archaic mining system, which has complete disregard for human life and safety?
Two, why is Meghalaya exempted from national mining laws?
Rat-hole mining, which started with gusto in the 1980s, has poisoned three rivers in the Jaintia hills: the Myntdu, Lunar and Lukha.
Scientists from the North-Eastern Hill University have found that these rivers have very high acidic levels.
Reports from other agencies suggest that pH of the water and sulphate and iron concentrations indicate significant deterioration of the rivers.
Acid mine drainage from abandoned mines was a major cause for water pollution in the areas investigated.
How does it hamper the environment?
Water from rivers and streams in the mining area has become unfit for drinking and irrigation, and is toxic to plants and animals.
A study by the North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong, says the Kopili river has turned acidic due to the discharge of acidic water from mines and the leaching of heavy metals.
Layers of rock above the coal removed during mining contain traces of iron, manganese and aluminium that get dissolved from mining sites through the acid run-off or are washed into streams as sediment.
How does the ban affect local people?
Mining has provided jobs to local people.
Following the ban, there are demands for rehabilitation or alternative employment. It was a major issue in the assembly polls.
A citizens’ report filed in the apex court names several state legislators who have stakes in the largely unregulated coal mining and transportation industry.
It blames loopholes in the Sixth Schedule and the land tenure system. Miners and local councils have allegedly been using exemptions given to tribal people (under the Sixth Schedule) to justify rampant mining.
The government has control over only 5% of Meghalaya’s land, with the rest being either community or privately owned.
In the case of coal mine owners, there are no strictures. They have left thousands of abandoned mines as human graves.
The State does not insist that they reclaim and afforest those mines. In 40 years of mining and profiteering, the mine owners have till date not constructed a single hospital or even a school.
There is complete disregard for corporate social responsibility because the mines are privately owned by the tribals.
Illegal mining has been highlighted by activists, but they have become targets of violence by those operating the mines.
In the glare of national attention, Chief Minister of Meghalaya has acknowledged that illegal mining does take place.
The state government has been remiss as it failed to act on the NGT’s directions. It must bear responsibility for what has happened at Ksan, and work to prevent such tragedies.