Hope of greening the ravaged land

By CF Lyngdoh

After decades of wanton exploitation and rapacious activities taking place in the coal belts of Meghalaya, the order issued by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to stop rat-hole coal mining across Meghalaya has lighted a ray of hope in the hearts of all Meghalayans, young and old (except the vested interests) that the dark period of destruction of the environment and ecology of our beautiful state of Meghalaya would soon come to an end and those areas which had suffered total environmental degradation would soon be restored to their former pristine glory.

The issue of coal mining in Meghalaya has always been a hot topic more especially in recent years when people in the coal belt realized with horror that their usual sources of drinking water had become poisoned and unfit for human consumption due to high acidity arising from coal mining. To this health hazard add the personal hazards encountered by every person entering the rat hole in pursuit of the ‘black diamond’ and you witness innumerable accidents taking away the lives or limbs of coal miners. Most such accidents just do not come to public knowledge; they are conveniently hidden and covered up with perhaps just a token compensation to the next of kin of the casualties.

Realizing the hazards of underground coal mining everywhere, the coal mining industry especially in the UK had approached the problems in a scientific manner in order to control the hazardous effects to the minimum. Over a period of more than 200 years of coal mining activity they have evolved scientific methods in the three main areas i.e., safety production and environmental management and these have been followed all over the world as an important part of coal mining practices.

In Meghalaya, there is a general tendency to blame the land system of the indigenous people for all the ills of the industry. In fact the vested interests use this excuse (land system) very conveniently to continue with the rat-hole mining system. Surprisingly, even the state government accepts such lame excuses for its failure to bring about a change in the coal mining industry.

In the pre-Independence period, the British rulers, with all their special considerations for the indigenous tribes, never accepted the claim that ‘Who owns the land, owns the mineral in it’.

During the British rule period, coal mines can be opened and worked only after obtaining a mining lease from the govt. that is how we had in the past a number of collieries (coal mines) in Khasi and Jaintia Hills such as, ‘The Rangsnabo (Rynsan U Buh) Colliery’ in Cherrapunji, ‘The Thangjinath Colliery’ near Pynursla and ‘The Borsora Colliery’ which were in operation in the pre-Independence days and for few years after independence. The older people who had worked in those collieries can still recollect the names of the Chief Inspector of Mines who inspected the mines, such as Mr. Barraclough, the last Chief Inspector of Mines in the pre-Independence period who visited Rangsnabo Colliery in Cherrapunji.

Rat hole mining in Meghalaya started during the last few years of undivided Assam and became widespread after Meghalaya attained statehood. The Govt. of India wanted the coal mines of Meghalaya to be nationalized in line with the rest of the country where coal mine nationalization took place in 1970-71. The Central Govt. sent a team to Meghalaya in 1975-77 which included the Deputy Secretary of Coal and the then Chief Inspector of Mines, Shri S.S.Prasad to study the situation in Meghalaya and submit a report. However the State Govt. was able to convince the Central Govt. that coal mining in Meghalaya is a cottage industry and so there was no need for nationalization. The result we see now is what we know it as rat hole mining with all the negative impacts on the local population and the environment.

It is totally wrong to say now that coal mining in Meghalaya is a cottage industry. When heavy earth moving machinery like cranes are being utilized to lower and raise miners into and from the mines by heavy machinery, can we still call such activity a cottage industry? The same machinery is also being used to remove coal from the underground mine to the surface. The accident reported (in ST April 23, 2014) about two coal labourers who died February 15 ” when a crane collapsed in a coal quarry at Wahlyngkam” clearly shows that heavy machinery are being used in the coal mines.

Neither is the present system of coal mining backed by the land system of the Khasis and Garos. These indigenous societies never had zamindari system over lands like what happened in the plains. In the traditional system, the community allots land to families for private possession only for dwelling purpose and for farming. Such lands are called ‘Ri-kynti’. Community lands are called ‘raid’ (raj) lands which are for the common benefit of the people. But the coal belts of today which are basically ‘raid’ lands are converted to private lands by the help of money power and political power and the rest of the community just become a silent spectator.

The order of the NGT has shaken the vested interests and voices of discontent are being heard from some quarters. But the NGT’s order is not for banning of coal mining in Meghalaya but only the rat hole system of mining is banned. Implicit in the order is the call for an alternative system of coal mining which is conducive for the welfare of the community, ensure maximum safety in the workings and overall up-gradation of the environment. The NGT’s observation was very appropriate that “neither the Govt. nor the people were benefiting from illegal mining except the coal mafias.” It is a call for re-organization of the coal mining industry in Meghalaya. In the case of the state of Goa, the Supreme Court order stopped iron ore mining for one and a half years and prompted the state to re-organize the iron ore mining system. In Meghalaya the technical initiative should come from the Directorate of Mineral Resources which is a technical body. But alas! The present head of the DMR is not a technical man – neither a geologist nor a mining engineer nor a geo-scientist. Then what can we expect from such an organization? A non-technical head is but a stumbling block in a technical organization. Installing a technically qualified head in DMR would be just a first step to clean up the mess.

It is amusing to read in the newspaper report (ST – April 23, 2014) with the headline ‘Govt. to appeal against ban’. It sounds like someone pleading with the police to allow a thief to continue stealing as otherwise the thief’s family may be reduced to starvation. The State Govt. should not commit such a disgraceful act rather it should be emboldened to act responsibly and sensibly and admit that it is high time that the system is overhauled for the betterment of the society and the future generations.

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