On March 3, reports emerged that four workers had died in an illegal coal mine in Nagaland. In Meghalaya, meanwhile, the operation to rescue workers trapped in another flooded rat-hole mine is set to complete three months on March 13 – even as media attention around what has been described as the “country’s longest rescue mission” has almost entirely waned.

With the Indian Navy and Army temporarily withdrawing from the operation on March 1 amid mounting tension between India and Pakistan, and the Orissa Fire Services also retreating in February, the National Disaster Response Force remains the only agency at the location in addition to the state’s own disaster response force.

NDRF: First to arrive

The mine was flooded by a nearby river on December 13, trapping 15 workers. On December 14, the National Disaster Response Force’s 1st battalion became the first rescue group to reach the site – located in the middle of a forest.

When the battalion first surveyed the spot, it discovered that the mine shaft was flooded with 70 feet of water – making it too deep for its divers to enter. It asked for the mine to be “dewatered”, using high-power pumps, a request that took almost 15 days to be acted upon because of bureaucratic inertia. Finally, just as the year ended, teams from Coal India Limited, Orissa Fire Services, the Indian Navy, and water-pump manufacturing companies like Kirloskar Brothers and KSB arrived with their equipment.

The National Disaster Response Force’s men – some 70 of them – kept waiting as the technical experts worked the mine shafts in the vicinity to reduce the water level in the main mine. They set up makeshift camps in the forest, braving the biting winter cold of Meghalaya’s hills in the hope that they would finally get to dive into the mines and recover the bodies of the trapped miners. The water level, though, remained the same.

Also, with the Indian Navy’s arrival, the National Disaster Response Force’s role became more about providing assistance to them. On January 23, the Navy employed an underwater remotely operated vehicle to pull out the first body. On February 27, days before it left, it pulled out another body using the same method.

With his men getting increasingly jaded by the lack of headway, the 1st battalion’s commander, SK Sastri, said he decided to “go for rotation” in February, sending the first team back, and getting in fresh legs from the battalion’s headquarters in Guwahati. “If you keep the same set of people without any achievement, they start getting fatigued,” he said. “To my knowledge, this is the longest-ever mission in our country.”

Doomed mission?

The National Disaster Response Force has gradually reduced the number of personnel at the site as there were “no actual diving operations and everyone is waiting for the water to recede”, said Sastri. “We don’t have the capability to dive in the prevailing conditions.”

But what about the operation itself? The murmur in the government’s headquarters in Shillong is that it goes on only because the court insists it must. “We can’t say anything as the matter is now sub-judice,” said government spokesperson R Sungi over the phone from the site of the disaster.

In the last hearing on February 25, the court, in response to a “tearful request” by the petitioners who want the mission to continue, asked the Centre to arrange for more pumps to be taken by air to the site with the assistance of the Army to try and dewater the mines. But with the Army pulling out, that looks unlikely, say officials.

“We have tried as hard as we can,” said Meghalaya Additional Chief Secretary PW Ingty, the official in charge of the mission. On being asked whether the government would ask the court to the pull the plug on the operation at the next hearing on March 12, Ingty was non-committal. “Let us see – we will review the situation and I will consult with the chief minister,” said Ingty.

Conversations with officials at the spot suggested that it is only a matter of time before it indeed happens. “Pumping is going on continuously, but water is not coming down,” said Sungi. “And now with the Navy gone, there are no divers also.”

As a local journalist, one of the first to reach the spot, said, “I have stopped going there now,” he said. “Nobody is there, only NDRF [National Disaster Response Force].”

Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this article’s headline had incorrectly said that efforts to retrieve workers’ bodies from a flooded mine “was set to enter third month”.