Nineteen days after 15 miners were trapped in a rat-hole mine in Meghalaya’s East Jainitia Hills district, the prospects of finding survivors have plunged. A timeline of the events showcases the state government’s tragic apathy in its initial response.
Rat-hole mining involves digging small vertical pits to reach the mineral and carving narrow sideways tunnels to move it underground. This technique was banned in the state by the National Green Tribunal as far back as 2014. But, as is clear now, the ban has remained only on paper.
Since the first day, the rescue operation has been marred by an utter lack of coordination between agencies. The government could not find the required machinery to pump out water from the mine flooded by a nearby river. In this digital age, the government officials sent letters to each other and waited days for responses to obtain the machinery.
FM Dopth, the deputy commissioner of East Jainitia Hills, first wrote to the state government for machinery on December 20, seven days after the miners were trapped. His request was forwarded by the chief minister’s office to Coal India, asking the company to lend the equipment. Two days later, Chief Minister Conrad Sangma told the media he was still waiting for a response from Coal India. The next day, the National Disaster Response Force suspended the pumping out of water because the higher-capacity machinery was yet to reach the spot.
On December 25, the Hindustan Times reported that the disaster response force had to suspend its “diving operations” because the crane contractor failed to show up on Christmas, a holiday. This was followed by Dopth going on “medical leave”, exiting a crucial operation with 15 lives hanging in the balance.
It was only on December 26, when Congress president Rahul Gandhi hit out at Prime Minister Narendra Modi for ignoring the plight of the miners, that the wheels started to turn quickly. On December 27, the Air Force came out to help move the machinery to the area. Yet, the very next day saw another farcical development: a fire services team from Odisha had to wait six hours for transport to the site from the Guwahati airport. On January 1, the high-capacity pumps at the mine began facing “technical problems”, forcing the rescue operation to be temporarily halted.
The chances of finding the miners alive look bleak at the moment and there is no doubt that the Meghalaya government is squarely responsible for this.
First, in gross violation of judicial orders, it let unscrupulous mining companies use a banned technique, jeopardising the lives of at least 15 people. Second, till the incident took a political turn on December 26, the government acted lethargically, exposing its utter inefficiency.
Besides bringing the unscrupulous mining companies to book, the accountability for this unfolding tragedy must be fixed on all those in the state administration who put the lives of the miners at risk. They include the chief minister.