On December 13, at least 15 miners were buried in a rat hole mine at Ksan in Meghalaya’s East Jaintia Hills after it was suddenly flooded. One miner, Saheb Ali, climbed out in the nick of time, and lived to tell the tragic tale.

He felt a cold rush of wind and heard a roaring sound, Ali says, and he knew a flash flood was about to engulf him and his fellow miners in the cave about 370 feet deep. In panic, he says, he almost ran up the ladder to the top and escaped death. But each time he recounts the story, fear is writ large on his face and emotions take hold of him.

Ali told the mine manager about the flooding who informed the district magistrate, FM Dopth.

Such accidents are not infrequent in Meghalaya. In July 2012, 15 coal miners were similarly buried in South Garo Hills. Their bodies were never recovered. People staying near mines, many of them run illegally, say the owners often do not report such deaths. The miners are generally poor migrant labourers from Bangladesh and Nepal. When they do not call home for months, their families simply give up because looking for them means crossing the borders clandestinely, and that is a risky proposition.

So, when Dopth wrote to the National Defence Rescue Force stationed in Guwahati, Assam, about the tragedy, he only asked for help to pull out the bodies. He had already given them up for dead. His follow-up actions were also dictated by the logic that there was no urgency since the miners were dead anyway. This apathetic attitude of the district administration and the complete lack of coordination among various rescue agencies delayed the rescue work.

The Indian Navy divers reached the mine on December 29. The 100-strong NDRF team, led by Commandant SK Shastri, had arrived on December 15, but they lacked the equipment to dewater the mines. They needed at least 10 pumps of 100 horsepower but had to make do with 25-horsepower ones. It took around a month before the Kirloskar Brothers, makers of high-power pumps, could be contacted and 100-horsepower pumps brought in by the Indian Air Force.

In spite of the National Green Tribunal's 2014 ban, illegal mining continues unabated in Meghalaya. Photo credit: Anupam Chakravartty
In spite of the National Green Tribunal's 2014 ban, illegal mining continues unabated in Meghalaya. Photo credit: Anupam Chakravartty

Exactly a month after the accident, help arrived from Planys Technologies, which specialises in using remotely operated submersible vehicles, or ROV. A six-member team from the company with an ROV joined the operation with the Navy divers.

They were briefed by the NDRF about the local geography and the nature of the mines. Rat hole mining involves digging a deep vertical shaft to locate thin coal seams around which a network of narrow horizontal tunnels are dug to extract coal and haul it up by cranes. Mine owners in the region say any other method of extracting coal isn’t viable due to the thinness of the coal seams. In fact, until a few years ago, mine owners employed children because they were more agile and could enter the horizontal shafts much more easily. When this was reported by a non-governmental organisation and the BBC made big news of it, child labour was temporarily stopped. But as in all matters related to coal mining, the owners still live by their own laws.

The National Green Tribunal banned rat hole mining in 2014 after a civil society group from Assam’s Dima Hasao complained that acid mine drainage from upstream in Meghalaya poisoned their rivers and killed riverine life. Yet, illegal mining continues unabated.

State apathy

Meghalaya has an estimated 559 million tonnes of coal reserves and its coal mines are all privately owned. They are not governed by any environmental protection laws, and many abandoned mines are left unworked and without any responsibility on part of the owners to fill them up.

Mine owners say the government should have called them to help dewater the Ksan mines since they know the technique quite well. Apparently, after the rains stop in October-November, the region’s mine owners team up and start dewatering the mines, keeping pumps running until all water is drained. They did not came forward to help, the owners claim, because they had gone into hiding for fear of being arrested for working the mines despite the ban.

The Navy divers, working ceaselessly with the Planys ROV, first saw a body on January 17 and retrieved it the next day. Another body was found a week later but it had decomposed too much to be possible to recover. A third body was sighted on February 24 but that too was beyond retrieval.

A sense of dismay has gripped the Navy divers who have been working round the clock and are aware that continuing with the retrieval and not rescue work is futile. Commander Gaurav Singh, who headed the mission, was recalled after the Pulwama attack as the Indian Navy was put on high alert.

Rescue workers carry the body of a miner retrieved from the Ksan mine in Meghalaya. Photo credit: HT
Rescue workers carry the body of a miner retrieved from the Ksan mine in Meghalaya. Photo credit: HT

The tragedy has revealed the complete apathy of the Meghalaya government, which had to be pushed by the Supreme Court time and again to step up the rescue mission even as its lawyer trotted out excuses and said everything was being done. It took a young lawyer from Delhi, Aditya Prasad, to petition the Supreme Court on humanitarian grounds. He pleaded that the miners needed to be saved in case they were still alive. The case continues to be heard regularly.

Prasad was told by the court he could visit the site for a first-hand account. He arrived on March 22, along with Sudhir Kumar, a hydrologist from the National Institute of Hydrology in Dehradun. Kumar had visited the mine earlier as well and submitted a report about what needed to be done. But he too had been roped in only a month after the accident. He had since given a detailed map of the area, and suggested measures to dewater the mine with high-power Kirloskar pumps that had to be brought all the way from Pune.

March 23 marked 100 days of the Ksan tragedy and, as hopes of the rest of the bodies being retrieved fade, the miners’ families are left wondering if the state will abandon the mission. They know what it is to lose a family member, and a young one at that. The state could not care less. It seems to care only when men in uniform are killed for that makes news and gives the muscular state a reason to hit back at the “enemy” and get some brownie points. How does helping save poor miners or recover their bodies earn the state any points? In this country, if you are poor you are a non-citizen. Period.

Patricia Mukhim is editor, The Shillong Times.

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