34 Days and Counting: How We All Have Failed the Trapped Meghalaya Miners

Kyrmenlang Uriah | Jan 18, 2019 | 6 min read


Dead and gone in dark alleys of Meghalaya

Kyrmenlang Uriah

Guwahati: With one of the 15 trapped miners’ body detected by the Indian Navy in the rat hole mine of East Jaintia Hills in Meghalaya, the agonizing wait of Justina Dkhar, a 45-year-old woman from Lumthari village of East Jaintia Hills District might come to an end. Over the last month, Dkhar has spent long days waiting for her two sons. Dkhar’s sons Iong Dkhar, 20, and Nilam Dkhar, 22, decided to work for a few days at the mine to earn extra cash before Christmas. Little did they know that the darkness inside the mine would never allow them to see light.

“Now I only hope to retrieve their bodies,” says Dkhar, whose 22-year-old nephew is also trapped in the same mine as her sons.

On December 13 last year, at least 15 miners were trapped in a 320-feet deep coal-hole after water gushed into the illegal mine. While rescue operations started, and were later suspended temporarily, it has taken 34 days to spot the first body.

This tragedy has put a question mark on the Meghalaya government’s repeated denials of illegal mining being rampant in the state.

Agonizing wait

Like Dkhar, many come to the accident site everyday to see if their nightmare comes true. The trapped miners’ kin have lost hope after waiting over a month.

Not only family members, even rescuers on the ground have lost hope of finding any victim alive. “All trapped miners are suspected to be dead as rescue after 28 days yielded no development at all,” official spokesperson of the rescue team said earlier.

A tweet from the Navy spokesperson early January 17 made it almost clear that it’s all over. S S Syiemlieh, additional deputy commissioner, East Jaintia Hills, confirmed to the media that the Navy-operated ROV has found a dead body and will retract it on Thursday.

Nearly 200 rescuers from the NDRF, Odisha Fire Service, Indian Navy, Coal India Limited, Kirloskar Brothers Limited and KSB -- a German company with its office in Pune -- are engaged in the rescue operation.

Teams of experts from Hyderabad and Chennai, along with a hydrologist from the Roorkee-based National Institute of Hydrology, have also been roped in recently for the rescue operation.

Despite high power pumps being used to pump out water from the main shaft, water level has remained almost as it was on the first day.

Illegal mining

In a state where there economic opportunities are limited due to lack of industries, mining of minerals especially coal, is seen as a lucrative trade. Coal mining was the biggest revenue generator for the state -- until the National Green Tribunal (NGT) ordered a ban on all types of coal mining in the state in 2014.

NGT’s directive came on the basis of an application filed by the All Dimasa Students’ Union and the Dima Hasao District Committee from Assam. The petition claimed that illegal rat-hole mining in the Jaintia Hills was polluting the Kopili river.

Though the green court put a blanket ban on all forms of coal mining in the state, it did allow the transportation of coal already extracted. The estimated amount of such coal stocks stood at nearly 1.76 lakh tonnes in May last year, according to the state government.

Mining activity in Jaintia hills is a small-scale venture controlled by individuals who own the land. Rat-hole mining, a common practice in Meghalaya, is extremely dangerous as the coal is pulled out from narrow, horizontal seams. In this style of mining, workers, including children, descend hundreds of feet on bamboo ladders to dig out the coal. The narrow alleys allow only one miner to pass or enter at a time, who crawl inside dark passages to reach certain areas.

A ‘Citizens’ Report’ compiled by activists and journalists and submitted to Supreme Court-appointed amicus curiae Colin Gonsalves further highlights worker conditions: “A worker carries with him a pickaxe, a shovel and a wheelbarrow. As the cave is dark, he carries a torch… If water has seeped into the cave, the worker can enter only after the water is pumped out. Workers usually enter the cave early in the morning and keep on working till they are tired, or hungry or when they feel that they have earned enough money for the day.”

Despite the extreme working conditions, miners still go down these dark caves as it fetches them about Rs 1,000 to Rs 2,000 per day. Working at these mines is always the first choice for youth in the area, as farming and selling vegetables gets them only about Rs 200 to Rs 250 per day.

If the mine is near, or even below the level of a nearby river -- as the mine flooded on December 13 was -- the slightest breach of walls close to the river can cause catastrophic flooding.

The NGT observed that the mine owners, despite the increase in the number of reported deaths, never paid much attention to safety measures. G K Srivastav, Joint General Secretary of All India Coal Workers Federation, states that there is a “violation of safety guidelines” in private mines, and that it is the administration’s responsibility to implement them.

Mafia and politicians

The citizens’ report submitted to the SC claimed that the historic intervention by the Green tribunal, questioned for the first time the legal grey zone under which the so-called ‘customary rat-hole mining’ has existed in Meghalaya. The report states, “This nexus (between coal mafia and politicians) has not only meant that any existing administrative oversight, tax collection regime, environmental regulation would be violated but also that orders passed by NGT and consequently the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India would be blatantly violated by the local coal Barons with active support of the State government.”

Agnes Kharshiing, 58, president of Civil Society Women’s Organisation, an NGO working for women’s rights and environmental causes, is of the view that there is a nexus between the coal mafia and politicians, which has ensured that those involved in this illegal activity roam free. She was attacked by suspected coal mafia members on November 8 last year, when she visited an illegal mining site in East Jaintia Hills. She was dragged into a jungle and assaulted. The attackers fled after locals reached the spot hearing Kharshiing’s screams.

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