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Brian D. Kharpran Daly
Being alarmed at the determined and unscrupulous plunder of the earth by a few unscrupulous miners on the Nongkhlieh ridge disregarding the very fragility of the area and the ‘no mining’ dictat of the Daloi of the elaka, the Meghalaya Adventurers’ Association filed a PIL in the Supreme Court of India in the year 2006. Those who are familiar with the Nongkhlieh ridge would understand the uniqueness of the place. Probably no other place in the country could rival it with regard to its potential as an adventure park or as a scientific resource for researchers in diverse scientific disciplines.
The ridge with an area of 30 square kilometers is riddled with caves of stunning beauty; already 145 kilometres of cave passage have been explored and mapped inclusive of India’s longest cave Krem Liat Prah – Um Im – Labit system (31 kms) and India’s deepest shaft Krem Shrieh (Tangnub) at -97metres deep. It is a caver’s paradise besides offering an ideal setting for eco-camps, interesting treks, sheer limestone rock walls for the die-hard climbers and an exhilarating warm thermal for para-gliding. For the scientists what more could be said, than that Krem Liat Prah is such an ancient cave that was developed long before the valleys were cut and therefore holds the clue to the morphology of the surrounding areas. Who would dispel the fact that two new species of cave fauna new to the scientific world– Schistura papulifera (loach) and Heteropoda fischeri (spider) have been documented from these caves. During the expedition of February 2011 two new species of bats unknown to the world have been documented in the small village of Kseh as Murina pluviana and Murina Jaintiana. It could not be overstated to say that the caves of Jaintia Hills are a treasure trove and a delight for serious scientific research.
When the Association went to court it did so for the good of the people and the environment they live in. Understanding the secrets of these mystic caverns would open revelations of chronological, geological and sociological importance: more so the caves of Meghalaya as they are unique in their position, being isolated from the tropical caves of Malaysia and Indonesia. It is to be well noted that these beautiful subterranean limestone caverns, like any other geological resource, are non-renewable. Yet they are being abused at an alarming rate. The court was the only answer to such determined and unscrupulous mining.
After more than four years the Supreme Court finally gave its judgment on the 1st of September 2010. According to the wisdom of the learned judges in the Court of the then Chief Justice of India the verdict read as under:
“Upon hearing counsel the Court made the following Order:
None appears for the petitioner in the second round. Even otherwise, we find substantial compliance of our order. The writ petition is dismissed.”
It was a devastating blow to conservation issues. That the petitioner’s advocate did not turn up for the hearing is best known to him. Even though the Association cannot go for a re-appeal the wisdom of the learned judges will not be questioned. What is necessary to point out however is that the state government in its counter affidavit informed the Court that it is coming out with a mining policy very soon and that an expert committee for the protection of caves had already been constituted. Four years later when the Court gave its final hearing the mining policy was still not ready. Today two years after the Court had found substantial compliance of their order the state government has not yet approved nor implemented the promised mining policy. What a shame! How long does it take our experts and leaders to formulate a mining policy or any policy for that matter? Is this fair to the petitioners or to the people as a whole? Where are we heading? Or does it not matter to our leaders? Why are they reluctant to bring about measures to regulate the haphazard unscientific mining of the earth’s mineral resources that is causing so much degradation to the environment? Is the appeasement of the miners more attractive than the well being of the rural community? Will their lives of the rural folks be doomed to bleak tomorrows?
That the case has been dismissed has only given the slack to the state government to sleep and drag over the policy and allowed the miners to mine and quarry indiscriminately with no thought to the well-being of the community that is affected. The frenzied scale of mining has reached alarming proportions, with the waters of the Lukha running blue and the Litein running yellow. A few years ago I was informed by a scientist that a new species of amphibian was discovered in the Litein river. Poor luck! The species must have become extinct by now. One is kept wondering what does it take to move the government to realize the harsh reality that we are inflicting on Mother Nature. God forbid but one can safely assume that the year 2012 will not witness the introduction of the policy. And an excuse the government invariable comes up with is that land in Meghalaya is privately owned so curbing the exploiting of mineral wealth from their land is not possible. So how come the Supreme Court imposed a ban on timber felling in the whole state? How is it that we have building regulations and we cannot build as we please even if it is in our own land?
Will the mining policy be a lost cause and when it does finally see the light of day will it not be too late? When India’s longest cave system is but only history; already the cavernous entrance of the cave is under attack and its Krem Rubong entrance has been breached. Sad indeed would be the imminent destruction of the rare red flowstone where the breach had occurred. And Meghalaya’s little Lechuguilla, Krem Wah Shikar is also under severe threat. What does it matter – Caves don’t give livelihood, so chorused our esteemed leaders in the House a few years ago; a very irresponsible utterance to say the least. And is the expert committee on the protection of caves even aware of their physical existence or are they least bothered to do the jobs they were assigned with. Is the committee still in existence, now that the Court has given its verdict in favour of the miners and the state government?
Today the poor rural villages on the Nongkhlieh ridge have to buy water. The same little water in the basin is used to wash four or five of their children with no spare water to rinse them. Are we all blind to these sufferings? Their subsistence (agriculture) is being taken away from them and they are being driven to break limestones. Don’t they have rights of their own – to live in dignity? The end result of mining is that the area will be unfit for human habitation. Where are their representatives? What is this talk about abolishing poverty? I am of the opinion that one who does not respect the environment he is endowed with does not respect oneself or his own fellow human beings.
What a shame it was when HH Mohrmen was asked to report to the Shillong Police station to be interrogated on an article he had written which had appeared in the Shillong Times two weeks back; just because some individuals had filed an FIR against him. For what? Because he had voiced the concern we all have? Because he was brave enough to speak out for the good of each one of us? He is pained at the destruction that he sees around him especially in his own backyard and his heart will not allow him to be a mute spectator. As a freelance journalist and a social thinker he has a moral right to do what he did. The disgrace should be on those who took undue and unreasonable offence at what he wrote. I salute him.
Today the world is at our doorstep. It is just a click away. We must know where we are going, what our aims are and how best to conserve and protect the very fragile and sensitive environment that surrounds us. How long must a few unscrupulous elements exploit the unique and non-renewable resource that we have. One would dread to think that the day would come when we hang our heads in shame for not having lifted our hands to stem the rot that has seeped into such greedy and wanton hearts.
A lot of questions have been asked and as responsible right-thinking citizens we have to address and answer them all, if not for ourselves at least for our future generations.
(The writer is a renowned speleologist and founder member of the Meghalaya Adventurers Association)