A one-man judicial commission, looking into allegations of illegal mining in Assam’s Digboi forest division, has found that rat-hole mining, an unscientific and dangerous technique in which workers enter deep tunnels around three or four feet high to extract coal, is flourishing unchecked in the region.

The area examined by the one-man commission of Justice Brojendra Prasad Katakey overlapped with parts of numerous ecologically sensitive zones, including the Dehing Patkai elephant reserve, which contains within it the Dehing Patkai National Park.

Though rat-hole mining has been banned in neighbouring Meghalaya since 2014, numerous instances of it have been recorded there.

While the method itself has not been specifically outlawed in Assam, Digboi resident Lakhya Jyoti Gogoi, a leader of the Satra Mukti Sangram Samiti, the students’ wing of the influential Krishak Mukti Sangam Samiti, pointed out, “All rat-hole mining in the region is essentially theft, carried out without any clearances or permissions.”

“Many people have died in the illegal rat-hole activities, which are already banned in Meghalaya,” said Gogoi. “Workers crawl for hours into the rat-holes without any safety measures. Usually one miner earns Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,500 per day.”

Gogoi had deposed before the commission and submitted documents to it, including an August 2017 letter by the general manager of North Eastern Coalfields informing the deputy commissioner of Tinsukia district of rat-hole mining in the region.

North Eastern Coalfields, a subsidiary of the government-owned Coal India Limited, has been mining coal in the region since the 1970s. In its nearly 300-page report, the commission had, in fact, indicted North Eastern Coalfields for a range of violations, from mining without valid leases to breaking laws intended to control environmental pollution. These mines transgressed laws in their operation, but paid revenue to the government. In contrast, rat-hole mining is entirely unaccounted for, and results in a massive loss of revenue to the government.

‘An astronomical increase’ in rat-hole mining

A report by Assam’s chief conservator of forest, submitted to the commission, noted that the approximate area under rat-hole mining in and around Saleki proposed reserved forest shot up from zero hectares in 2015 to 979.7 hectares in 2020, which the commission described as an “astronomical increase”. It noted that in 2020 there was more than twice as much area under rat-hole mining in Saleki, one of the proposed reserve forests that the commission examined, as there was under the government-owned North Eastern Coalfield’s open cast mines.

During its site inspections, the commission recorded instances of rat-hole mining in the Tikok open cast mine, which was still under NEC’s control. “The Commission during the field visit has noticed at least one rat-hole mine and also dump of freshly mined coal in Tikok OCP,” the report stated. It added that the NEC “being in possession of Tikok OCP, must also be held responsible for the mining of coal by rat-hole mining found inside the said OCP”.

It also found two instances of rat-hole mining in an area adjacent to Namdung colliery, within (the) Saleki proposed reserve forest.

These findings contradicted the statement of Assam’s industries minister Chandra Mohan Patowary who had in a May 2020 press conference denied the presence of rat-hole mining in Assam.

The commission recorded several instances of rat-hole mining in the Digboi forest division. Photo: Devajit Moran

‘Tacit approval’ from authorities for illegal mining

While the bulk of the report focuses on the company’s violations, the commission also investigated illegal mining in the region more broadly.

The Union minister of state for environment had in November 2019 admitted that illegal mining was being carried out in the state. The Centre had noted that the Assam government had informed it that the state government was “aware of illegal coal mining in forest areas of Digboi division” in places such as Namphai reserve forest and Saleki proposed reserve forest.

On its site visits, the commission observed “dumps of freshly mined coal” in the Bomgora region, located within Saleki proposed reserve forest. It was informed about illegal mining within Tingokpani reserve forest, but could not visit the area “due to security reasons”. The commission, therefore, directed the divisional forest officer of Digboi to submit photographs of illegal mining from the area to it, which it incorporated in its report.

The commission noted that it was unable to assess for itself the extent of illegal mining in the region because agencies that it requested to conduct satellite mapping, such as the North Eastern Space Application Centre, did not do so.

But as an indicative figure, it cited a communication from a sub-divisional officer of Margherita to the director of Assam’s Directorate of Geology and Mining, which noted that between 400 and 40,000 people mine between 30 and 40 kg of coal per day from Margherita.

Thus, it observed “approximately 12,000 to 12,00,000 kg of coal per day was illegally mined, resulting in huge loss of revenue”.

The scale of illegal mining indicated in the sub-divisional officer’s communication, “is not possible without the patronage of the officers of various departments of Govt. of Assam as well as of the District Administration and Assam Police,” the commission observed.

The commission describe the inaction of authorities as tantamount to “tacit consent/approval to such illegal mining”. It took to task one subdivisional officer who stated that he had inadequate personnel to act against illegal mining – the commission described this as a “lame excuse”.

Further, it noted, “It also needs to be found out whether there was/is any political patronage for continuance of such illegal activities for a long time.” To this end, it recommended an investigation by “an independent agency, like CBI, over which the Govt. of Assam has no control”.

Injuries and deaths linked to illegal mining

The commission heard from residents of the region about the harm that the coal industry had caused to residents of the area. Jarnel Minj, the president of the regional committee of the All Adivasi Students’ Association of Assam, submitted a list of 22 people to the commission, of whom 15 had died, and seven had suffered “total disablement” in the course of their work in illegal mining activities.

Minj told Scroll.in that the deceased had been employed by the “coal mafia” in rat-hole mining and illegal transportation of coal.

“It was a theft of coal carried out by coal mafias in Margherita,” he said. “Poor people, irrespective of the communities, get involved in the coal extraction for a living. They earn Rs 1,200-1,500 per day.”

He added, “Many people get trapped in the tunnels while extracting coal but they don’t get any compensation.”

Though the commission asked the deputy commissioner of Tinsukia district to verify these claims and submit a report to it, no such report was submitted. “The said assertion relating to the death of few persons and sustaining grievous injuries by others remain unchallenged,” the commission observed.

Further, it stated that since the responsibility to prevent illegal mining rests with the government of Assam, “which they have failed to discharge”, the next of kin of those who died or were injured were entitled to compensation from the government.

The commission recommended a payment of Rs 7.5 lakh to the survivors of those who died, once the claims of death during illegal mining activities were verified. It also recommended payment of between Rs 1.5 lakh and Rs 5 lakh to the injured, depending on the severity of the injuries, and after their claims were verified.

A journalist named Diganta Chetia also deposed before the commission about a brutal attack on him in July 2011 by between 20 and 30 people involved in illegal coal mining.

A first information report was filed at Margherita police station, and the investigating officer informed the commission that chargesheets had been filed against eight accused who had been arrested, while five accused were absconding.

At the time of his deposition, in December 2020, Chetia still showed signs of injury, though nearly a decade had passed since the attack. “He could not even put his signature in the deposition, because of the injuries received by him, therefore, he has put his thumb impression,” the report noted.

The journalist informed the commission that he had spent Rs 20 lakh on his treatment so far. The commission recommended a payment of Rs 10 lakh as compensation to him, as well as assistance for further treatment, the expense for which was to be borne by the state government.