In 2014, the National Green Tribunal imposed a ban in Meghalaya on rat-hole mining of coal – a technique that entails digging small vertical pits to reach the mineral. But activists have often alleged that coal continues to be mined illegally in the state, particularly in the Jaintia Hills, often with the collusion of authorities. The state establishment has routinely brushed off these allegations, citing lack of proof.

But a string of incidents – each grimmer than the other – over the past month or so will make it increasingly difficult for the government to stave off these allegations. In November, Agnes Kharshiing, a fierce critics of illegal mining, and one of her aides were attacked, ostensibly for trying to take pictures of vehicles illegally ferrying coal. Even as Kharshiing recovers from critical injuries, another tragedy has struck: 13 people have been trapped inside a coal mine in Ksan village in East Jaintia Hills district since Thursday after the mine suddenly flooded. The mine is reportedly located near a river.

As of Friday evening, efforts to rescue the miners had yielded no result. “The quarry is 300-feet-deep, water is still being pumped out,” said D Lyngdoh, the district disaster management officer. Lyngdoh said a team of the National Disaster Response Force was working in tandem with the State Disaster Response Force and civil defence volunteers.

New mine?

But how was the mine operating in the first place? Does it mean mining never really ceased, as activists allege? East Jaintia Hills’ deputy commissioner Federick M Dopth was defensive. “We organise raids regularly, but it’s a huge area and 80% of the population here depends on mining,” he said.

Dopth said the mine where the workers were trapped is likely to have sprung up after the Supreme Court’s December 4 order allowing the transportation of extracted coal till January 31. “It is a new mine,” he insisted. “We came across new camps and blankets.”

Government officials and the police say the relaxations granted by the court have made it difficult to enforce the ban. The green tribunal, too, on several occasions, has caved in to appeals by miners and allowed the transportation of coal that had already been extracted. A senior police officer based in Jaintia Hills told in January that miners tend to sneak in fresh coal with previously extracted coal. “If you are implementing a ban, you go the full hog,” he said.

Apart from environmental reasons, the National Green Tribunal’s order banning coal mining in the state notes that it did not follow regulations. Before 2014, coal mining was practically a free for all in Meghalaya – miners, citing the state’s Sixth Schedule status, followed none of the laws that apply to coal extraction in the state. However, the green court affirmed that the Sixth Schedule – a provision under the Constitution to protect tribal rights over land in the North East – did not exempt it from the coal mining laws of the country.

Thirteen coal miners are trapped in a flooded coal mine in Ksan village in East Jaintia Hills district since Thursday. (Credit: IANS)

Politicians in mix

Mining could only resume, the court ruled, if the state government drafted a scientific mining policy in sync with India’s laws. The previous Congress government failed to do so. Many, like Kharshiing, believe it was wilful as a shadow economy only helps politicians. A citizens’ report submitted in the Supreme Court on December 4 provides documentary evidence of several politicians, across the party spectrum, having a stake in the coal trade.

“Coal is funding election expenses in Meghalaya,” Kharshiing said in an interview to in the run-up to Assembly elections in the state in February. “Meanwhile, the state is losing revenue.”

The National Peoples’ Party-led government has not fared any better. One of its constituents, the Bharatiya Janata Party, had promised a solution to the impasse within eight months of being elected to power. But the ban remains and, as recent evidence suggests, illegal mining continues to flourish – satellite images submitted by a National Green Tribunal-appointed committee to the Supreme Court earlier this month reiterate the presence of active mines in the state.

Activists say Thursday’s incident is yet more proof of government inaction. “What NGT has asked for is a mining policy for scientific mining, but it has still not been submitted by the state government,” said Hasina Kharbih of Impulse, a non-profit organisation in Shillong and one of the petitioners in the National Green Tribunal case that led to the ban. “The state government was supposed to take steps for environmental restoration, but nothing has been done.”

Death traps

Worker deaths in Meghalaya’s coal mines are frequent – but often undocumented. The rat-hole mining technique is a death trap, people involved in the trade concede. To add to that, workers mostly venture into mines with little more than their tools and a head-torch.

After repeatedly denying the existence of illegal mines in the state, Chief Minister Conrad Sangma conceded on Friday that “there could have been situations and instances where it [mining] was happening”. Speaking to over the phone from Shillong, he said, “Physically sometimes it is not possible for us to go to every nook and corner. We do have our challenges in terms of manpower. It is very difficult for us to cover the whole state.”