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Professor OP Singh of Department of Environmental Studies at North-Eastern Hill University, whose research paper on the adverse impact of coal mining in Jaintia Hills on environment prompted All Dimasa Students Union to raise the issue of pollution of the Kopili river through a petition before NGT, speaks to Sunday Shillong on whether safe mining is possible in Meghalaya.
What prompted you to carry out the research on acid mine drainage in Jaintia Hills?
We have been working on coal mines for the last 15-17 years. I started working (on the topic) in 2002 and 30-35 papers have been published so far. On the basis of my research and experience, NEEPCO wanted to know about the remediation measures which can be taken. So I prepared this report and suggested the measures. But somehow only water quality came to focus. The report actually suggested how we can remediate the entire affected mining area.
Considering the massive impact of mining on environment, should mining be allowed in Meghalaya?
From the very beginning I was telling that it (coal) is a natural resource and we are mining natural resources everywhere and in every state. Here also mining should be done but as per regulations in view of the safety of the people as well as environmental protection. This decision of the Supreme Court is quite right. It is allowing the state to mine (coal) under the MMDR Act, 1957, so that all environmental concerns and safety of people are taken care of.
But is not the term ‘safe mining’ contradictory?
No. In other places like Jharia and Raniganj, coal mining is going on and all scientific measures have been taken there to protect human rights. The amount of coal produced in those states is more than 99 per cent but in Meghalaya it is only 0.2 per cent. So the amount produced here is nothing compared to other states. If they can do scientific mining taking care of safety of people, then why not here?
(The Jharia coalfield fire was first reported in 1916 and still continues leading to irreparable damage to land and water resources. The burning of coal releases harmful gases like sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, among others. A report published in The Times of India in 2016 pointed out that the fire was left to burn for a century. Similarly, another study by Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt (EPW, 1999) pointed out, among other things, that the Raniganj region has a land-dereliction problem, problems of an underground void, land subsidence and mine fires, a problem of dying agriculture and decaying commons, and various manifestations of conflicts over resource use)
How different is mining in plains belt and in a hilly terrain like Meghalaya?
Hilly and plains do not make any difference. In those places (Raniganj, Jharia etc), the coal seams are very thick running up to several metres. You open the land and you find plenty of coal. But in Meghalaya, coal seam is very thin, maximum 2-2.5 metres. That is the reason why the technology used in those places will not be applicable here because over-burden will be generated and profits will be uneconomical. It is not a question of hilly or plains area but it is a matter of how much coal is present and how it is distributed. In Meghalaya, it is thinly distributed and that is why people here adopted rat-hole mining. Some methods have been suggested in the NGT meetings but I cannot comment on this.
There is something called high-wall mining. There was a presentation on this around two weeks ago. All these scientific methods are there and here too, if proper precautions and scientific methods are applicable, then safe mining is possible. Highwall mining is a completely mechanical process with no person going into the mines. Instead, a machine goes into the mine and brings out coal. This is practised in some places in India. However, it also has damaging effects on environment… Experts have to see which method is suitable for Meghalaya.
If Meghalaya follows all scientific methods, can authorities ensure that there will not be any pollution of water bodies, soil and other elements of nature?
How can I comment on this? It all depends on the honesty of the system and the people. If all stakeholders work honestly it is possible to ensure that.
Is it possible to control illegal mining here?
I am not the right person to speak on this. I am an academician… It is not just coal mining but I have worked on limestone mining.
What about limestone mining? No scientific method is followed in this case too. But why no one is objecting to it or putting it under the MMDR Act?
That is there. This is a little funny, for coal no permit is being issued but for limestone permission is given… All depends on the type of minerals like minor and major. In Meghalaya, that is also a controversial thing. Minerals which are major in other parts of the country have been declared minor in this state.