Recurring mine disasters

A team from National Disaster Relief Force at the site

All hopes appear to have ended about the lives of 15 miners caught in the coal mine in the hilly area of Ksan village in Meghalaya’s East Jaintia Hills district,  130 kilometers away from Meghalayan capital of Shillong over two weeks ago.

There are serious complaints that the BJP government led by Conrad Sangma is not making effective attempts to rescue their lives.   Even a trace of sympathy and solidarity that was displayed in the earlier case of  students trapped in Thailand's cave,  could be seen in the case of the hapless people caught in the rat-hole mine.   Not only that,  the victims in Meghalaya did not get that much of news focus either.   The cry from Meghalaya comes amidst dire warnings about the serious disasters caused by the collusion between the mine mafia and political parties flouting all rules.   The land of Tsan is just 48 kilometers away from the spot where woman activist Agnes Kharshiing,  who  led a strong agitation against illegal mines and excavation,  had been severely attacked.  The miners were trapped because of water that seeped into the mine.  Even after two weeks,  the authorities are washing their hands off saying that there is no way for rescue operation unless the water level has fully receded.

This is not the first disaster in Meghalaya, a state rich in coal mines and claims a 2,000 year old tradition in mining.  In spite of that, outdated mining methods are used in the state.  But the volume of exported minerals has been registered huge increases from time to time.  Many, including global experts who conducted studies about Meghalayan mines,  have recommended major reforms in the mining technology used in the region which has perhaps the world's richest natural resources.   However,  all these ended up as studies and reports without the state government taking any initiative to put in place a systematic machinery in accordance with them.  Although the ruling and opposition parties are now clashing with each other for political mileage,  the truth is that regardless of who rules,  mines are an autonomous region under the mine mafia.    The tragedy of 13 December is also a price paid for that.  It is not for the first time that the poor are made to suck tears in the name of mining.   In 1992,   a similar disaster in the mines of Garo hills claimed 30 lives.  And that mishap was also following water level rising as a result of land slides.   These disasters repeat during excavation of new mines adjacent to the mines left with high water levels.  Even as that remains a known fact,  till now the government has not been able to strictly enforce any laws in this regard.   In July 2012  too,  15 miners were trapped in the coal mine of Nangalbibra, in south Garo hills.  Even their dead bodies could not be located and taken out.    It was following this that the National Green Tribunal banned the unscientific 'rat-hole' model of mining on 17 April 2014.  The current tragedy is the first since then.  But local media report  that minor loss of lives is quite commn in the various mines of the state.    Following a court petition by All Dimasa Students Union of Assam pleading that unscientific mining techniques and endless exploitation of nature were polluting the rivers and water streams of Meghalaya and destroying its rich water resources,  the ban was reiterated in 2015.  But in Meghalaya,  where the underground economy literally rules,   laws remained confined to the statute books.  A Shillong-based NGO had filed a public interest litigation that children were being extensively used for unscientfic rat-hole mining.  But what the state government informed the court was that the number of child labourers in mines was just 222. 

Because the ownership of mining regions of the state is in the hands of tribes there,  big business from outside can easily amass land at their will.   They resort to such models of mining,  without using the methods prescribed by the National Green Tribunal,  and do mining through tunnels of a height of 3 or 4 feet,  since they find it effective to excavate more coal seams from the depths of the hills.   And that is what causes disasters too.    But the Meghalayan experience is that every one, right from politicians and bureaucrats to extremists,  joins the chain of mine mafia.   It is an election promise of all parties that closed mines will be reopened.   When authorities themselves raise the criticism that the unscientific mining methods bring a revenue loss of Rs 700 crore every year,  who will bell the cat to find a solution for such disasters?    For, what can be a greater tragedy than the very people who take initiative to make laws,  becoming colluders to flout them? 

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