Are we a land of illegal mining?
By Albert Thyrniang
In our current effort to compile “An Anthology of Essays” in a local language a writer emphasises the “Value of Time” stating that during emergency situations and disasters, recovery teams are to act fast without wasting a single minute. The rescue team to save the five trapped miners at Krem Ule, Umpleng East Jaintia Hills comprising the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) is not exactly an emergency response team. The rescue operation did not really start even within a week of the occurrence of the tragedy. After eight days hopes of rescuing the miners alive is close to zero per cent. The rescue efforts were said to be hampered by lack of equipment, incessant weather, inaccessible location and unfamiliar underground mine routes. However, the real reason is because rescue teams are unprepared. The unpreparedness is because coal mining is illegal. No illegal mining is supposed to take place. So technically, the government cannot have a rescue mechanism for disasters related to illegal activities.
Meghalaya has become a land of mine tragedies. There are people who call the state a place of illegal mining. Time and again illegalities have been exposed and sadly tragedies have done the job. Since 2014, the year the National Green Tribunal of the Supreme Court banned ‘rat-hole’ mining in the state we have witnessed three disasters. The first was the Ksan tragedy on December 13, 2018 in which 15 miners were trapped inside a 370 feet (112 meters) deep mine forcing the NDRF and SDRF team to abandon the rescue work after nearly three months.
The next was on January 21 this year at Rymbai when a structure collapsed killing six people in the illegal coal mine. Within less than than five months we have the Umpleng tragedy on May 30 in which at least five workers have been trapped in the mine which is 330 feet deep of which 152 feet is filled with water.
The state government is fully aware of the rampant illegal mining but it is business as usual. The Chief Minister, Conrad Sangma talks tough after each tragedy but there is hardly any follow up action. After the Ksan tragedy he called for regulation of mining in the state. Little progress is known to have been made. The other day he promised that those involved in illegal mining will be punished stating the law is there against the culprits. FIRs are filed. Mine owners, employers and ‘sordars’ are arrested. But after that what next? Are they being prosecuted? Has anyone been found guilty by the court of law? Or are they roaming free on bail? Is there enough anti-mining deterrence?
Most of the tragedies have taken place in East Jaintia Hills. The eight year old district has become notorious for illegal mining and transportation. Is there a machinery to check the dubious activities in the 2040 sq. km district? If illegal mining goes on unabated in an area where tragedies occur regularly then there is no need to stretch our imagination to assume that there is a larger scale extract of the ‘black’ diamond in other locations. If illegal mining is not checked in the ‘district of tragedies’ then what about the Shallang (West Khasi Hills), Borsora (South West Khasi Hills) and Nongalbibra zones (Garo Hills)?
Strong apparatus against illegal mining is not in place because officially there is no illegal coal mining and transportation in the state. The state government has resisted the repeated demand for an independent probe into the unlawful activities. Even after three tragedies that have killed more than 25 people the government is still studying the demand for an independent investigation into the illegal coal mining and transportation of coal in the state. Is that not ridiculous? Does it not show the callous attitude of the government? Only when an enquiry is conducted the facts can be established and recommendations made to halt the dirty and underworld business. If this elementary decision is not taken then coal will continue to flow out of ‘rat holes’ via trolleys in East and West Jaintia Hills, West Khasi Hills and Garo Hills that make its way to Bangladesh or in Assam bound trucks.
Why is the MDA government resistant to an investigation? Why is it so defiant in rebuffing every suggestion of an inquiry? Does it have something to hide? Does the government fear that if there is an investigation it has to officially acknowledge the presence of illegal activities? If an investigation indeed does find that illegal mining and transportation do take place then it has to implement stricter measures to prevent the same. In such a scenario some people will stand to lose. And who will stand to lose? Politicians? Coal barons? Officials? Which parties are those politicians from? Which parties are the coal barons and officials close to?
The latest incident has irked the UDP. The major constituent of the NPP-led MDA government has reacted saying the party is not soft against illegal coal mining and transportation. It has expressed displeasure over the government’s unsatisfactory handling of the issue. It has questioned its own government for its lackadaisical attitude. A statement even threatened that the party will ‘take a different course’ if the government does not pay heed to its reminders.
These words from the UDP are as vague as they can get. What does the statement, “If the government does not listen to our concerns, we will be apprehensive about continuing to be a part of the government,” mean? It is equivocal. It does not mean anything. This noise and the ones on corruption earlier have resulted in no action. Why does the UDP not just walk out of this ‘corrupt’ government if it really means business?
When the UDP makes accusations it forgets it has three ministers plus the Speaker in the coalition government. The UDP makes up 25 per cent (excluding the Speaker) of the government of at least six parties? Are its ministers excluded from the Government? Are those in office absolved from any blame? The Home Department is manned by a UDP minister. He is in charge of law and order. When the UDP points fingers at the government is the Home Minister exempted? Is he not responsible for the tragedies and the flourishing illegal coal activities that have brought disrepute to the state? Are the ministers and the party two separate entities? Is the UDP in the Opposition? Is the UDP too not answerable for the current state of affairs? Is not the UDP one of the beneficiaries in the illegal coal business?
One of the top advisers in the party has taken upon himself to counter every article and letter to the editor on the UDP. But when a very prominent politician labelled a very serious allegation against the party, no leader cared to respond. In April last, newspaper reports quoted the accusation as follows, “When NPP was holding the Home Department, the people especially from Jaintia Hills who are in the coal business used to pay almost Rs 50,000 per truck but today when after the UDP is in charge of the Home portfolio, the amount has doubled…” Why was there no response against such a grave charge? Is the allegation true? Does the UDP too benefit from the underground business? This writer anticipated that the allegations would shock the UDP (and the NPP). But they were quite cool about it. There was no rejoinder. There was no denial. The silence speaks very loud indeed!
It is speculated that the UDP did not respond to the pointed allegation because if it did the accuser would then demand for a probe. If an investigation takes place it might expose the dubious activities in the UDP, the NPP and others. So the most convenient thing is to keep mum. This might be the reason for the UDP to stay illusive on the issue of investigation against illegal mining. Even as it attacks the government with all guns blazing for its inability to curb the illegal deeds, it has remained non-committal on an independent inquiry, let alone demand for it.
Please spare a thought for the victims. Most of the fatalities were from neighbouring Assam. Poverty has forced them to undertake such a risky job. Are we a state that provides employment only the illegal way? As in the Ksan incident the authorities might not be able to retrieve the mortal remains of the Umpleng victims. Family members might not be able to bid farewell to their loved through a funeral. There is nothing pleasant about tracing the thread of grief to the illicit mines in our state.