V Lamare has an intense dislike for “big black SUVs like Scorpio and Fortuner”. “They come and then there is dhoom dhaam,” said Lamare, a resident of Ummlong village in Meghalaya’a West Jaintia Hills district. “Dhoom dhaam you understand? Fighting, beating and sometimes even killing.”

In the Jaintia Hills, Meghalaya’s coal country, where 15 workers have been trapped in an illegal mine since December 13, sports utility vehicles, usually shiny and black, are the conveyance of choice for “malik”, as the big mine owners are known locally. The smaller mine owners usually drive white Maruti Gypsy.

The region has been in the headlines of late as much for the state government’s tardy response to the accident as the open secret it has brought to wider attention: that coal mining has continued unabated despite a ban by the National Green Tribunal in 2014.

The state administration claims the ban is disregarded by the local community. It is also difficult to enforce, they say, as coal mining is the primary source of livelihood in a region with few other employment opportunities and where vast tracts of land have been left uncultivable by rampant mining.

Many residents of the Jaintia Hills are not convinced. They claim the coal benefits only a small section of the population, the rich mine owners who grab the land of poor farmers to dig for the mineral.

‘Commons are forcefully privatised’

A citizens’ report submitted to the Supreme Court on December 4 echoes this claim:

“Coal-bearing areas in many villages have been consolidated under the ownership of a few large-scale mine owners, leaving many others landless. Their livelihoods have been affected, and many are excluded from, the web of activities connected with coal mining and trading.”

Coal mining, the report notes, has led to “migration of the tribal poor...from mining areas to urban centres like Shillong and Tura. This is a result of the commons being forcefully privatised and hence preventing access to land by the many.”

Coal has indeed changed the Jaintia Hills landscape, say old residents. Sleepy and quaint until almost as late as the 1980s, the area exploded with activity in the last decade of the 20th century as commercial mining began, without any regulations.

At the heart of this shift was the one-street town of Lad Rymbai, which turned into a bustling commercial centre housing an eclectic mix of people, from Nepali managers to Bengali Muslim labourers from Lower Assam. Today, as the squalid urban crush of Lad Rymbai recedes from view, signs of affluence appear on either side of NH6. Here, local mine owners have built lurid multi-storeyed houses guarded by imperious gates.

Heaps of coal lie by the roadside on the way to Nonkhleih. Photo credit: Anupam Chakravartty

The sudden inflow of wealth, many residents say, disrupted the largely egalitarian tribal social order and led to increasing lawlessness. While mining was banned in 2014, the clout of the local coal barons endures. They continue to flout the ban, confident of immunity from local law enforcement.

The ban pushed the coal mines deeper into once pristine forests. But heaps of freshly extracted coal still lie by the roadsides in the area. There is no attempt to conceal the illegal activity.

Speak with the residents and it quickly becomes clear that power is indeed generated from coal in this neck of the woods. In the Jaintia Hills, one does not say no to the coal mafia. “Once those men come and ask for your land, you have to give it for whatever price they offer,” said Lamare.

An economy of fear

Several people echoed Lamare but few wanted to be identified for fear of retribution from malik. Even Lamare requested that her first name not be revealed. Their fear is justified since the price for opposing the coal mafia could well be one’s life.

Nau I Kyrmenshuh, the headman of Nonkhleih, the area where the 15 labourers are trapped, claimed his son was killed for opposing a cement factory in their locality. His dismembered body was found near a coal mine. “Kat diya usko,” he said. They slit his throat.

Nau I Kyrmenshuh's son was killed for allegedly opposing a cement plant backed by the coal mafia. Photo credit: Arunabh Saikia

The factory, Kyrmenshuh alleged, was backed by a “big party” with coal interests (coal is a major raw material for cement plants). “According to the initial plan, the entire community was to receive monetary compensation for the land on which the factory was to come up,” he said. “But without the community’s consent, the terms were changed and only a few private individuals were going to benefit from it. The mafia bought off everyone and got me suspended.”

Kyrmenshuh said cases of land grabbing are common in the area. “People are forced to give away land for as little as Rs 10,000,” he added. “And who will take on the big coal parties here? You are a big coal party, will you care about the law? No, you will not, you will kill us poor people and dump our bodies in one of the coal shafts.”

When force and intimidation fail the mafia resorts to deception: there have been reports of mine owners forging signatures to take over community land.

For whose livelihood?

Kyrmenshuh dismissed the livelihood argument often put forward by supporters of the illegal mining. They include leaders from across Meghalaya’s political spectrum, many of whom are miners. “Everything is gone,” he said. “Our pineapples, banana trees have all been cut for coal. Nothing grows here anymore. Our boys rarely ever work in the mines as they are too deep and dangerous. Yes, maybe a few cha and ja [tea and rice] shops and some women sell kwai [betel leaf with lime paste and areca nut], but what else?”

Most labourers working the Jaintia Hills coal mines are migrants from Assam and Nepal. Of the 15 men trapped in the mine, only three are local residents. “I would never have allowed mining in our area but I was under suspension when permission was given,” Kyrmenshuh said.

Coal trucks are a common sight on NH6, which passes through the Jaintia Hills. Photo credit: Anupam Chakravartty

A paddy farmer at Shnongrim, one of the villages closest to the accident site, agreed. He estimated that less than 10% of the people from his village depend on coal mining, directly or indirectly, for their livelihood. “The mines are too dangerous,” he said. “When coal party comes asking for our land, we are sometimes tempted. With coal, there is easy money – we can buy a big car and build a better house. But then I tell myself the coal will last for only two months. What will I do after that? My land will become uncultivable.”

Is there pressure to part with their land? “There is always pressure but don’t write my name if you are going to write that,” the farmer responded.

Agnes Kharshiing, the activist who barely survived an attack on her life in the area, allegedly by the coal mafia, insisted that “only rich people” benefit from the mining. “You ask the poor, the farmers who have lost all their land, how much their lives have improved because of coal,” said Kharshiing, who remains bedridden since the assault in November.

Still, coal has brought the dream of wealth for many. “People want to be simple farmers only in their hearts, the lure of easy money coal brings can be difficult to resist,” Lamare said, wistfully. “I have no wish for a big car, I will make do with an i10. Yes, that’s my favourite.”

Agnes Kharshiing remains a fierce critic of coal mining in Meghalaya despite an attempt on her life. Photo credit: Anupam Chakravartty