Meghalaya Mine Tragedy: Why The Congress Has To Take The Blame For It

Meghalaya Mine Tragedy: Why The Congress Has To Take The Blame For ItRahul Gandhi forgets that it was his party, which was in power in Meghalaya till March this year, that failed to draft a comprehensive mining policy. (Twitter)
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  • Rahul Gandhi would do well to ask his party why nothing was done when they were in power to frame a workable mining policy that would have ended rat-hole mining.

The tragedy that struck an illegal mine near Lumthari village in the Khliehriat area of East Jaintia Hills in Meghalaya with 15 miners trapped (some accounts put the number at 17) and feared dead inside is one in a long list of such calamities that have visited the hill state. And it is the Congress, which has ruled the state for more than 30 years since it was formed in 1970, that has to accept a major part of the responsibility.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi tweeted this afternoon (26 December) criticising Prime Minister Narendra Modi for posing for pictures on the Bogibeel bridge that he inaugurated on Tuesday (25 December) and ignoring the plight of the miners, but he conveniently forgets that it was his party, which was in power in Meghalaya till March this year, that failed to draft a comprehensive mining policy. Such a policy would have pre-empted this tragedy. The Congress has allowed, and many say has richly benefited from, illegal mining to continue in the state.

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) had banned ‘rat-hole mining’ in Meghalaya in 2014 and upheld the ban in 2015 while allowing transportation of the coal that had already been extracted. Mining in Meghalaya is a private operation, unlike in the rest of the country, because the lands are all community-owned and the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution prohibits any change in the ownership of tribal land. Meghalaya has an estimated 640 tonnes of coal reserves and all the coal is extracted in an unsafe and unscientific method that heavily pollutes the air and water bodies.

There are two methods of mining coal. The ‘side cutting’ method involves burrowing holes along the hill slopes through which one adult can hardly crawl through to extract the coal that exists in seams that are less than two metres in thickness. The ‘box cutting’ method involves digging a shaft ranging from a few to a few hundred feet and then burrowing through the horizontal seams of coal.

The miners are impoverished people, mostly of Bangladeshi origin and brought from Assam and parts of the Garo Hills, who earn about Rs 2,000 a day for a seven-hour shift. But since the small tunnels, called ‘rat holes’ (and hence the term rat-hole mining) are so narrow and often collapse, trapping the miners inside, this operation is very risky.

Mine operators and owners don’t offer any insurance or safety equipment to the workers and offer them only basic facilities like tin sheds to live in. In most mines, even a roster of the workers going into the mine is not kept and most mine collapses or floodings that kill one or two miners go unreported since the workers are from extremely poor families, who are silenced with some meagre compensation.

Acting on complaints of polluting the Kopili River that originates in the coal belt of Meghalaya and flows into Assam, and taking into consideration the unscientific method of extraction of coal as well as the lack of safety for mine workers, the NGT imposed a blanket ban on coal mining in Meghalaya in 2014 and asked the state government to come up with a comprehensive mining policy that addresses all the concerns. But for four years, the Congress government in Meghalaya did nothing and allowed mining to continue illegally.

Rahul Gandhi has conveniently forgotten that in July 2012, when the Congress was in power in Meghalaya, 15 miners were drowned in an illegal mine in the Garo Hills. In December 2013, five miners were killed in a mishap in another illegal mine in the Jaintia Hills. In February 2014, four miners were killed when the illegal mine in the Garo Hills collapsed. The Congress government paid a paltry compensation to the families of the dead, and the then prime minister Manmohan Singh didn’t have a word of condolence for the dead, leave aside visit the disaster sites.

The Congress, during its last stint in power in Meghalaya from May 2009 to March 2018, drafted the controversial Meghalaya Mines and Mineral Policy in 2012, but it failed to pass the NGT’s muster. The 2012 policy actually supports rat-hole mining since it states: “Small and traditional system of mining by local people in their own land shall not be unnecessarily disturbed.”

The NGT has taken exception. In 2015, the Tribunal censured the Congress government and observed: “The orders of this Tribunal have been violated without exception...The State Government has failed to check illegal mining effectively and has not framed the mining policy, mining plan and the guidelines as directed under the orders of this Tribunal.”

According to environmental and civil society activists, the Congress government had a deep nexus with the illegal miners. “The illegal mining suited the ruling politicians since the miners did not have to pay any revenue to the state and continued their mining without impunity. And in turn, they paid off the politicians,” said Arwat Shullai, an environmental activist.

Patricia Mukhim, the editor of the widely read The Shillong Times, says the coal mafia, politicians, police, and bureaucrats are all hand in glove. “Otherwise, how does illegal mining go on?” she asks.

Coal mining has been happening in Meghalaya for 150 years, but it is only over the last four decades that it has become large-scale and indiscriminate. At the time of the ban imposed by the NGT in 2014, nearly six million tonnes were being extracted from Meghalaya’s mines annually. The market price of all that coal is about Rs 3,500 crore. But this is the official figure, and it is well known that double that amount is mined illegally, making illegal coal mining a high-stakes game controlled by a powerful coal mafia.

The then chief minister Mukul Sangma had told the state assembly that the ban had caused a revenue loss of Rs 600 crore to the state and had rendered tens of thousands of people jobless, besides causing a huge loss to the state’s economy. Businesses across the state, as well as in neighbouring Assam, reported substantial losses.

It would, thus, have been logical for Mukul Sangma to draft a comprehensive policy for scientific extraction of coal, laying down procedures for checking and mitigating environmental pollution, and for adequate safety standards, living conditions, compensation, and statutory benefits for workers. “Such a policy is urgently required, or the NGT will not lift the ban,” says Patricia Mukhim. But the Congress government did nothing all those years.

The National People’s Party-led coalition government, in which the Bharatiya Janata Party is a minor partner, which came to power in March this year, initiated the process of framing a policy in April this year within weeks of coming to power. “We are doing what the Congress failed to do. And while a comprehensive policy is being framed, we have approached the Supreme Court for relief from the NGT order. The Union Coal Ministry is also working with us to get the ban lifted and put in place a comprehensive mining policy that takes care of all environment, miners’ safety, human rights and other concerns,” said Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma.

Thus, Rahul Gandhi can hardly blame anyone other than his own party and former chief minister Mukul Sangma for the mine tragedy.

The second part of his tweet accusing the Modi government of refusing to organise “high pressure pumps for the rescue” is a lie. And here’s why: the disaster struck on 13 December morning when water from a nearby river gushed into the mine, which was an old one and had not been in operation for sometime before mining resumed a few days before the accident. The mine was a ‘box cut’ one and the main shaft is 370 feet deep. Rat holes (the small tunnels along the horizontal bands or seams of coal) branch off from the bottom of the shaft and despite the best efforts of the National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF), the state disaster relief force, the state police, and other rescuers, the water level in the mine shaft is not coming down appreciably.

Divers have not been able to even get to the bottom of the shaft, leave alone enter the rat holes – an impossibility with their oxygen cylinders and other equipment.

The existing pumps to flush out the water are not sufficient since water is continuously flowing into the main mine shaft and the tunnels from the river. Experts suspect that the mine is connected to other mines that may also be flooded, and hence draining out all the water to get to the miners (who may well be dead by now) won’t be easy.

Heavy-duty pumps that are in the possession of the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation and Coal India have been requisitioned, but these weigh a few tonnes and are bulky, so they will take a few days at least to arrive. Till then, the rescue teams are engaged in a futile attempt to drain out water from the mine. Even after the heavy-duty pumps arrive, they may not be effective till the crevices through which water from the river is flowing into the tunnels and the main shaft are sealed. That is, in itself, quite an impossible task as such crevices are deep underground and will be hard to locate.

Rahul Gandhi would do well to ask Mukul Sangma why he (Sangma) did nothing to frame a mining policy that would have ended rat-hole mining and why he allowed illegal mining to flourish. Had Mukul Sangma acted responsibly, this disaster would not have happened.

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