Chief Minister of Meghalaya, Mukul Sangma recently told media persons to assess the impact of the ban on coal mining by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) He has joined the chorus of those who say that the ban has resulted in the loss of livelihoods. To assess the impact of the ban on coal mining only from that single perspective would be to miss the larger picture. There are several positive results arising out of the ban. The rivers that had gone toxic now have a chance to naturally rejuvenate themselves. The bald landscape that was once a forest land might also be reclaimed. Child labour in the mines is now greatly reduce, although, we are told they have now gone further inside the forests where coal is still being surreptitiously mined and illegally transported out or is being used in cement factories.
Several deaths have occurred inside coal mines but they are not taken seriously by the state. In July 2012, 15 miners were stuck inside a mine and died of suffocation as relief was slow in reaching. And the fact is that no one really cares for these migrant labourers from Assam, Jharkhand, Nepal and Bangladesh. Coal mining has benefitted only about 5,000 mine owners, many of them in the benami trade. The state earns about Rs 600 crore a year by way of revenue but it has never lifted a finger to carry out any environment regeneration and afforestation programme. Even the abandoned mines continue to remain death traps and have not been reclaimed. The proposed Mining Policy that was crafted in 2011 is repeatedly shelved because it does not suit the interests of the mine owners. And on this agenda, politicians from across the political divide are united. No one dares to challenge the coal mining lobby and push for the Mining Policy since elections are largely funded by this lobby.
The mine owners continue to resist the idea of being held responsible for cleaning up the environment, implement safe and scientific mining practices and undertake welfare measures for workers. Those important provisions are watered down through several amendments in the Policy which is still hanging fire. The NGT’s stance is simple. Let the State come up with a Mining policy and the ban would be lifted. But all politicians including the Members of Parliament want to have it their way – that the ban be lifted on their terms. To buttress their arguments they cite provisions of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, stating that Meghalaya is exempted from mining regulations applied across the country by virtue of being a tribal state where customary laws are in vogue. This is taking the exemption clause too far. Mining is a not a cultural practice in Meghalaya. It is a commercial activity with large scale environmentally degrading impacts. For now the NGT ban has come as a breather for the environment and for those who suffer the adverse consequences of mining – the people living downstream of the polluted rivers.