Friday, December 8, 2023

Mask of rat-hole mining falls in state


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A huge mound of coal is seen inside a rat-hole mine. (ST)

NONGSTOIN, Feb 22: A complaint filed by the Nokma of Nengchigen, Kristina G Marak against seven persons as well as the police over illegal mining of coal within their clan lands had made sensational news while putting a huge question mark on the government assertion that no illegal act of coal mining was taking place.
It thereby made sense to verify if the allegations made by the villagers had any iota of truth in them. To prove that their allegations bore substance, the locals invited a reporter of The Shillong Times to come and see the reality of what was taking place.

Wooden planks laid out for labourers inside a mine.(ST)

Here’s a first-hand account of what transpired at Nengchigen village:
Nengchigen is a village in West Khasi Hills (WKH) that borders South Garo Hills. It falls on the other side of the mighty Simsang. While it is accessible from Rengdim in WKH, the extremely poor road connectivity made me take the shorter route through the village of Jadi in South Garo Hills. Further the question of safety too came into the equation leading me to choose the Jadi route.
Arriving in Nongalbibra at 12 noon, I took a four-wheel pickup truck to make the arduous journey. While the village is just about 7 km from Jadi Bazaar, it took me over 40 minutes to reach the destination.

Clothings, food and other items point to reent human activity at a camp. (ST)

After crossing the river, we reached the village of Rengchi, whose anti dacoity (AD) camp has also been in focus after the villagers’ complaint that money was being collected from the illegal coal trucks by the policemen. After another 10 minutes of a bumpy ride, I reached the village of Nengchigen where several villagers had gathered to walk me around the various mines.
After a cup of tea, we again got into a vehicle ready for some of the most hazardous journeys. Upon reaching the Nokma’s house, a team of policemen from Rengchi, who had apparently also come on an inquiry, met us. The villagers, led by the Nokma took us to the first of what they said were at least 10 rat-hole mines within their lands with the police team toeing behind.
The site of the first mine itself proved that rat-hole mining was definitely taking place. The mine, of which we managed to traverse about 300 metres, gave us the jitters. There was a hole on the side of a hill containing extracted coal that could fill a six-wheeler truck. However there was no sign of any labourer around.

Pick-axes kept near the entrance to a mine, ready to be used by labourers. (ST)

Inside the mine, the air was so acrid that a short walk got all three of us who entered, drained out. It is a wonder how labourers have been making trips on a daily basis for close to 8 hours inside one of these. I felt a sense of asphyxiation when within one. My only thought then was to rush out in the open once again.
“They come only during the night and dig up the coal. They were here even after our complaint but must have been alerted and gone somewhere else for now,” explained the Nokma.
However a search of the area around the mine led to the discovery of pick axes, shovels, water pipes and a water hose to draw water from the mine though the water pump was nowhere to be found. Further clothes, blankets, fresh vegetables and even rice that had been cooked in a pan was found lying around, pointing to recent human activity at the camp.
“We have made several complaints to the authorities to save our lands but all of them seem to be in conduit with these smugglers. We have been threatened, beaten up and these smugglers even brought armed men into our homes to scare us. There has been no support for us with these greedy men ravaging our forests and our hills for their profit,” added one of the villagers.
The mine apparently was being run by one Clington Marak. Various items, not all of them, were taken by the policemen who came with us. The cops claimed that they could not seize all the items in the absence of a magistrate.
We then headed back from Clington’s mine to another mine at Chimalam with the police team escorting us. This mine was being used by one of the accused named in the FIR – Lipson Momin.
En route, labourers, both native and from elsewhere, could be seen in the various shops. Many of the mines had makeshift camps that were all occupied by the same labourers that worked the mines at night.
When near the site, one of the policemen came over to us claiming that they could not go along with us as there were no officers amongst us. We told them that we would continue, with or without them. Later they joined us at the mine at Chimilam belonging to another person named in the FIR.
At the spot, we saw another huge mound of freshly dug coal with the miners literally defacing a section of the hill for coal. Labourers were present inside the camp. Hose pipes and tools for coal extraction were all found nearby, proving beyond any reasonable doubt that mining was indeed taking place. After getting all the proof required, we finally reached a house in the same village where lunch was served before we headed out.
The villagers asserted that all of those named in the FIR filed by the Nokma have been running the coal trade from the village without any permission. All those named have forcefully taken over rat-hole mines – some multiple ones.
Nengchigen, as per the villagers, was not the only village that was being ravaged this way. Rat hole-mines were present all along the route with shrewd businessmen cutting away at the earth for coal, with or without permission.
About Nengchigen: The village has 63 Garo households with the clan members owning more than 700 hectares of land. It has only one primary school after which children go to Rengchi to attend upper primary school. Beyond that the villagers have to shift their children elsewhere for higher education. Only one of the roads has been made within the village and that too through MGNREGA. It is bordered by Rengchi towards the SGH route and by Goreng on the WKH side.

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