By Albert Thyrniang
Recently someone in the US recommended I read an article on the internet. Way back in November 1999, a year ahead of the 2000 US presidential election David Horowitz wrote, “In Washington, of course, evading responsibility is an art form, so it is not always easy to tell who’s responsible for which mess.” David Joel Horowitz, a writer and founder of the think-tank, the David Horowitz Freedom Centre, was referring to the poor state in health care, social security and education that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans owned responsibility for their failure while in power in Washington D.C.
A similar mess is on in Meghalaya – the illegal mining and transportation of coal. In spite of the rampant illegal business the MDA government has evaded responsibility. The latest in a series of instances that have come to light in the illegal coal business is the Rymbai tragedy where six labourers fell to their deaths into the coal mine in East Jaintia Hills ten days ago. The Deputy Chief Minister Prestone Tynsong refused to accept that the Government has failed to curb the underworld trade terming the Rymbai tragedy a stray incident. He even acknowledged his Government’s helplessness in stopping the unlawful business completely.As reported he bizarrely explained, “This incident occurred far from the roadside and it is not even near the village. It takes one and a half hours to reach the place by vehicle, so it is not right to say the incident happened because of the failure of the Government.” Shockingly the BJP MLA and Health Minister AL Hek has come out in support of the Government claiming, “If anything happens in the Health department you cannot just blame the Health minister,” asking further, “if something happens in the Civil Hospital will you blame the Health Minister?
Such escapist defence should not be unchallenged. Such unjustified statements should be condemned. It’s a pity the State is graced by such arrogant ministers. They should not get away with such callous attitude. If we cannot blame the Government then whom do we hold accountable? Is there a rule stating that if illegality occurs in a distant location away from the roadside the Government is not responsible? Are far flung villages outside the purview of the law? Is it not the Government’s responsibility to maintain law and order beyond the highways? Moreover, we are not speaking of other crimes here. We are explicitly talking about illegal mining which is banned by the Supreme Court. The Apex Court’s embargo includes all coal bearing areas. Hence, the state government is duty bound to ensure that no illegal mining takes place anywhere where coal deposits are found. Even for stray incidents the State Government is accountable. For instance, BSF is certainly responsible for international smuggling. If smuggling takes place it is the failure of the Force. We are not suggesting the men must be withdrawn from the border. Similarly, we are not proposing the Government be dismissed. We only want the Government to accept its failures.
Coming to the Health Minister he is gently reminded that ministers are responsible for their ministry. That is precisely why they are there. If there is no responsibility involved ministers are not needed. Government departments can be run by directors. It is awful that a senior minister does not understand this basic concept. If tragedies, especially arising out of illegality, happen in the Health Ministry, in civil hospitals or government health facilities surely the government and specifically the Health Minister is responsible. And if they take place on a regular basis, the responsibility is graver necessitating a marching order for the minister.
On the larger picture too the Government is to be blamed. In July 2019 the National Green Tribunal (under the Supreme Court)conditionally lifted the ban on coal mining imposed in 2014 directing the state government to prepare a comprehensive mining blue print that includes environmental restoration and labour safety norms as per the country’s laws. Sleeping over the issue, the State Government has not complied till date. Therefore, implicitly the Government is facilitating illegal coal mining, its sale and transportation. The government has failed.Simple!
The instances of alleged illegalities are not stray as the Deputy CM may think. We chronicle the following incidents. First the widely publicised Ksan tragedy of 13 December 2018 where 15 miners perished after being trapped in an illegal mine. One month prior to it two activists were brutally attacked at Tuber Shohshrieh village while they were taking photographs of the alleged deposit of fresh coal.In March 2020 four persons were arrested in East Jaintia Hills allegedly for transporting coal to Assam while Revenue Minister Kyrmen Shylla’s brother Bison Shylla, who is also under a cloud in the Rymbai incident, secured anticipatory bail. In October the same year the clandestine ferrying of coal was exposed when Assam police arrested five persons after detaining two coal-laden trucks.The name of the Power Minister, James Sangma cropped up but things moved on.
In January 2020 the State Lokayukta, based on a specific complaint, ordered a CBI inquiry into the alleged international racket involving transportation of coal besides boulders and betel nut. The Government challenged the orders for a CBI probe in the Meghalaya High Court frustrating the Chairperson of Lokayukta. The allegations of illegal coal mining and transportation did cause a political stir forcing the CM Conrad Sangma to remove his brother, James Sangma as State Home Minister apparently on the demand by the UDP and other allies in the MDA government.
By no yardstick are these stray incidents. The Government has acquired the art of evading responsibility despite recurring occurrences of illegality. When questions are raised ministers demand proof. When proof is evident they turn around with weird excuses to escape accountability and responsibility.
Initially the latest incident got the BJP on the one hand and the NPP and the UDP on the other into a verbal duel. The BJP, the two member partner in the 41 member MDA coalition which has been at loggerheads with the Government over corruption in ADCs, ILP and of course illegal coal commerce, demanded the resignation of Home Minister, Lahkmen Rymbui besides seeking an independent inquiry into the deaths of six labourers. Predictably Rymbui (UDP)has refused to quit citing that Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa has not resigned over the death of six people in a dynamite blast in his home constituency.The Chief Minister (NPP) has also ruled out expelling his minister. And the Deputy Chief Minister, also NPP,has fired the ‘stray incident’ salvo. With Hek standing behind Rymbui the BJP is subdued.
The UDP leadership which probably played a major role in the removal of the former Home Minister are now witnessing the flak against their colleague. Formerly the party had backed the State Lokayukta’s move for a CBI investigation into illegal coal business but later changed tone pronouncing that charges sans evidence hold no water. The Rymbai tragedy is not unreal nor is it presumed! Or allegations must be illusory as their own minister’s brother could be involved.
Ever since the inception of Conrad K Sangma’s Government in March 2018 illegal mining and shipping of the banned mineral have made headline reports regularly but each time there was a denial. Even the Rymbai tragedy that has put the Government on the back foot may prompt no decisive action. No CBI inquiry! No independent investigation. We wonder, why?
Ministers are intelligent to assess that illegal coal mining and transportation is not a huge issue in the minds of the general public. The political class knows that it does not have a negative impact on electoral prospects. It does not swing the fortune of the Government even if the illegality continues. Issues like the one at hand and corruption have no bearing on electoral outcomes. The election to GHADC in April could prove the point. The ruling party which is accused of large scale corruption might still return to power. If the opposite happens politicians worry. If all illegal coal business stops, those in the government may stand to lose, electorally. If all illegal mining shuts shop and all trucks are off the roads, the coal mafia won’t fund ‘guilty’ political parties and candidates in the next election. The coal barons could support the present ministers and politicians who take no strong measure to end the illicit trade. The status quo may benefit top politicians, some in the police and the bureaucrats, financially as alleged by an outlawed outfit. The best thing is not to clear the mess.
The present mess is persisting also because pressure groups are mere spectators. There has never been a protest, an agitation, not even a statement against illegal coal mining and transportation. We can only infer they too get a share of the lucrative industry. If the matter is treated like the railway line, uranium, CAA and ILP be assured of zero unlawfulness. Unfortunately the order of the highest court continues to be contemptuously violated for which the Government has so far evaded responsibility.
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