Earlier this month, a court-appointed committee, led by a senior retired judge, provided statistical confirmation for the first time of what has been an open secret in Meghalaya: that illegal rat-hole coal mining continues to thrive in the northeastern hill state despite a blanket ban since 2014.

The committee’s findings validate a long-running allegation by activists and observers that successive court orders extending the deadline for the transportation of coal mined before the ban came into force, had left the door open for fresh mining in violation of the law.

An inventorying exercise that forms the core of the latest report compiled by a committee led by retired Gauhati High Court judge Brojendra Prasad Katakey found that the state authorities had overstated the quantity of coal extracted before the ban by over 70% or 13 lakh metric tons.

‘Encouragement’ to illegal mining

The Meghalaya high court, which formed the committee in April to help enforce the coal mining ban in the state, said the latest findings made it “apparent” that “13 lakh MT of coal was illegally mined, transported and discovered which the state sought to pass off as coal mined prior to the imposition of the ban”.

The court added that there was “no doubt, further amounts of coal, in addition to” these 13 lakh metric tonnes had been illegally mined since the ban. The report, the court said, proved that illegal mining of coal continued in Meghalaya, possibly with “state participation and even encouragement”.

Katakey told Scroll.in that during the course of this inventorying exercise, he had found “evidence of recent mining”. He said the illegally mined coal was being transported to Bangladesh or other Indian states via Assam. “I got the evidence of illegal transportation of illegally mined coal to Bangladesh,” said Katakey.

Ban on mining, not on transportation

In 2014, the National Green Tribunal imposed a ban on rat-hole mining of coal in Meghalaya on the grounds that it was unsafe and unscientific. The rathole technique entails digging small vertical pits to reach the mineral, often making it dangerous for miners.

The green tribunal, however, allowed for transportation of already-mined coal till 2017. The Supreme Court has since given more concessions to the state’s coal miners, allowing for periodic extensions of the transportation deadline.

This allowance, though, many in Meghalaya believed, had left the mining ban incomplete. Under the guise of transporting old coal, they argued, it let miners illegally extract and ferry freshly mined coal.

These fears came true when 13 people were trapped to death inside a coal mine in Ksan village in East Jaintia Hills district in December 2018 after the mine suddenly flooded.

Nonetheless, with vast amounts of mined coal yet to be disposed of, transportation of coal continued after the incident.

Search and rescue operations were conducted at a coal mine where five miners were trapped in East Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya, in June 2021. Photo: PTI

An inventorying exercise, finally

In April, the Meghalaya High Court roped in Kakatey to streamline the transportation of the already-extracted coal. The court noted that central to this was inventorying the coal – something that had never been comprehensively done before, with the state government and Coal India Limited passing the buck to each other. In August, the court directed the Meghalaya government to provide a quantitative assessment within a week.

The next month, the state furnished the details. Chief secretary DP Wahlang pegged the total amount of coal mined before the 2014 ban at 32.56 lakh metric tons.

Discrepancies in the numbers

However, a reassessment carried out by Katakey found the figure to be significantly lower. “19,54,258.816 MT of inventoried coal mined prior to imposition of ban is found during re-verification/re-assessment and not 32,56,715 MT as stated in the report…submitted by the Chief Secretary,” wrote Katekey in his report which Scroll.in has seen.

The report further states, “Out of the said quantity of 19,54,258.816 MT, 1,30,669 MT of coal has already been auctioned leaving the balance 18,23,589.816 MT of coal to be transported and auctioned. Quantity of coal other than 18,23,589.816 MT, if any, found to be available was not mined prior to the imposition of ban.”

The surplus coal reported by the state, Katakey contends in his report, “must have been illegally transported out of the state Meghalaya” – a conclusion that the court echoed in its order, saying that the state was “continuing to play fast and loose with the court”.

‘Not just illegality but criminality’

For many in Meghalaya, this is only confirmation of what they have long alleged. Kyrsoibor Pyrtuh, a pastor and member of the civil society organisation Thma U Rangli Juki, said he had always been “perplexed how the coal which was extracted before the ban has never been exhausted even after eight years”.

The “bureaucrat-business and politician nexus” was out in the open with the new report, said Pyrtuh who is likely to contest the upcoming elections as an independent candidate.

“This is not just illegality but criminality committed by those in power,” he added.