The National Disaster Response Force’s efforts to rescue 15 miners trapped in a flooded coal mine in Meghalaya have been marred by lack of effective equipment, said SK Shastri, the commandant of the battalion leading the operation.

“All the experts and experienced people are of the view that we would be requiring at least 10 pumps of 100 horsepower each to pump out the water,” Shastri said. Currently, the rescue team has two pumps of 25 horsepower at its disposal.

The miners have been trapped in the illegal rat-hole mine in East Jaintia Hills district since December 13 after water from a nearby river flooded it. The mine is filled with 70 feet of water, making it inaccessible to the rescue workers. “NDRF can go in only when the water is pumped out,” Shastri said. “We tried diving into the water, but there is just too much water.”

Rat-hole mining of coal – a technique that entails digging small vertical pits to reach the mineral and carving narrow sideways tunnels to move it underground – was banned in Meghalaya in 2014 by the National Green Tribunal as it did not follow regulations. But activists allege coal continues to be mined illegally and this incident appears to be proof of that.

‘Under examination’

The wait for the high-power pumps has already gone past a week. A request was made to the district administration on December 16 to make the pumps available, said Shastri.

East Jaintia Hills deputy commissioner Federick M Dopth said he had written to the government stating the requirement of new pumps. “It is under examination by the government – how feasible it is or whether it will be again a futile exercise,” he said.

PW Ingty, Meghalaya’s additional chief secretary who heads the state’s disaster management department, declined to comment, saying he was “not in Shillong”.

Water seeping in

Meanwhile, water from the river continues to seep into the mine. “It seems the river has got connected to the mine shaft,” said Shastri. “So, we have to find out the exact point where the river has got connected with the mine and eliminate that point using a diversion.”

A Survey of India team is at the spot trying to find this point of connection. “These two things have to happen simultaneously for us to have any sort of chance – the water has to be pumped out and the source cut off,” said Shastri. “Because even if a diver manages to reach the bottom of the shaft, he can’t enter the lateral mines if the water is not completely pumped out.”

Shastri added that time was running out. “There are records of miners surviving for even two months, but these are illegal mines with no safety measures,” he pointed out.