Coal mining tragedies: North-East's black secret

The unsatisfactory standards of safety in the mines of the resource-rich North-East recently came into attention during the Meghalaya coal mine accident in which 15 miners were trapped in a flooded mine. The problem, however, is multi-dimensional, with issues of lack of development and a developing nexus between the politicians, bureaucrats and the coal mine owners being seen as the reasons for such incidents. Read this article to know about the black secret of India's North-East.

The recent coal mining accident in Meghalaya was shocking, to say the least. 15 men were trapped in a coal mine, which was flooded with water on the 13th of December last year. The Ksan mine where the incident took place is located in Lumthari village of the East Jaintia Hills district. The incident occurred when miners accidentally cut into an adjacent mine, which was full of water. Consequently, the water rushed into their mine as well, instantly flooding the mine and trapping them.

A Disaster or a Murder?

Was this tragedy an avoidable one? All the evidence suggests that it was. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) had banned coal mining in Meghalaya way back in 2014. The reason was that coal mining had led to almost irreversible damage to the fragile environment. This included pollution of several local rivers and rivulets which are the source of drinking water for the local population.

Moreover, adequate safety standards are rarely in place. Consequently, miners are almost always in danger whenever they enter into one of these mines. The NGT while pronouncing the judgment used extremely strong language, saying that the mining activity in the state had benefitted neither the government nor the people. Only the 'coal mafia' had benefitted from the mining activity.

Nevertheless, a time limit was put in place to allow the coal producers to transport the coal mined prior to the 2014 judgment. However, using that as an excuse, fresh mining has been restarted in the state.
In November 2018, just a month before the mining tragedy, two activists were attacked for collecting evidence regarding illegal coal mining in the area. The result is before all of us to see.

An Unscientific Technique

In this discussion, one term which has often propped up is 'rat-hole mining'. This refers to mining which is carried out by digging small holes which may be of sizes ranging from 5 square meters to 100 square meters. Digging is generally done using hand-held tools like pickaxes. After the initial hole is dug, miners enter the holes and dig sideways into the coal containing portion. The dug-out material is then transported through baskets and wheelbarrows.

This system of mining is unscientific, unsafe and hugely polluting. Miners are at an immediate risk both because of collapse as well as because of inflow of water. Due to this practice of mining, the Kalang River in Assam has become polluted in recent times. Despite this, a politician-bureaucrat-mine owner's nexus ensures that rat-hole mining doesn't stop easily.

Money and Lives

Why do the miners not oppose the inhuman industry where they are seen only as tools to dig out coal, where they do not have any security of body? The reason obviously is the absence of any alternative employment opportunity. According to an article on Firstpost, the majority of workers in Meghalaya's black mines are from Chirang district in Assam, a district ravaged by Bodo militancy. Due to gross underdevelopment, the poor villagers in Chirang have practically two options through which they can earn enough to feed their families. The first is to work in the illegal wood smuggling 'business' based in Bhutan. The other is to work in coal mines in Meghalaya. Due to slightly more lax implementation of laws in Meghalaya, workers from this poor corner in Assam are often quite content to move to Meghalaya.

In this dark black business, earnings are often better than the options they have back home. While the earnings of a casual laborer in Assam is generally limited to Rs. 400 or below, a fresh miner in Meghalaya can easily earn around Rs. 1200 per day. An experienced one can earn above Rs. 4000 per day. During the months from November to March (the drier months when mining is carried out), the miners earn enough for the year. But very often even a handsome wage of Rs. 4000 seems insignificant when seen in the light of the tragedy that we just witnessed.

Too little, Too late

Meanwhile, the government has received a rap on its knuckles from the Supreme Court, after petitions regarding the unsatisfactory nature of rescue operations were filed in the apex court. Just for an instance, the state government had requested pumps from Coal India Limited (CIL) on the 20th of December. CIL received the message only on the 26th of December.

It was only on the 23rd of January that the first body out of the 15 miners trapped was discovered in a badly decomposed state. The body could only be identified through the clothes on it. Till date, only 2 bodies have been discovered. The navy and the army, which had been lending a valuable hand so far, have been called back. The NDRF is now the only ray of hope for anxious families who are waiting for the bodies of their breadwinners to complete the final rites.

Coal is necessary. Without coal, the power stations of the region won't work. But that doesn't mean that workers who are driven to such occupations purely because of their poverty should not be provided safety. As I write this article, news has arrived of deaths in a coal mine in Nagaland due to poisonous gases. We can only hope that the government will wake up before another great tragedy occurs.


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