Hypocrisy of the coal mining lobby
By Patricia Mukhim
On March 21, Santa Mary Shylla of the coal-rich Sutnga -Saipung Constituency spoke on behalf of the people who have been reduced to poverty after the ban on coal mining. We don’t expect anything else from someone whose family owns coal mines and coke units within the constituency. Jaintia Hills is now a battleground between the “High Level” who still manage to mine coal and transport despite the NGT ban in 2014 and the Low Level who are the owners of small mines. The High Level because of their connections in the Government (of course on payment) manage to send the coal out surreptitiously. In this transaction the Government (meaning the democratically elected one) does not earn a single penny of revenue but individuals within the Government have made a killing. All the crores spent during the recently held elections come from this transaction. Coal mining is bad enough but turning coal into coke is a dangerous activity as it poisons the air. But who cares? The coke unit owners can shift to Shillong any day. It’s the poor who will have to live with the toxic air from the coke units and poisoned water from the acid mine drainage.
That there is irreparable damage to the environment from coal mining especially from the unscientific rat hole mining, goes without saying. First the rat hole mines have claimed many lives and most of the deaths are unreported because those who risk their lives to go into those death traps are some of the poorest. Their lives are up for sale. And till date we have never heard the coal lobby speak of rejuvenating the environment; of reclaiming abandoned mines and planting trees. No, those are things they won’t do because it means shelling out money. And look at the State Government of Meghalaya and its Environment and Forest Department! It has never told the mine owners to pay for environmental services. Does that part of the earth belong only to the few mine owners that they are allowed to do just what they want? How can a few wealthy and powerful people be allowed to destroy the environment at this scale while people watch helplessly? Thankfully the Meghalaya High Court has now ordered the CISF to monitor all these criminal acts.
Now let’s look at the destruction caused by coal mining in Meghalaya. The first is loss of wildlife. Coal mining requires forest areas to be cleared. Hence when the mining operation begins the bulldozer gets to work and flattens everything first. As a result this destroys sizable ranges of wilderness area, displacing the native fauna and removing habitat and food sources. This eventually results in an imbalanced ecosystem — and even the endangerment or extinction of entire species.
The sink holes or rat holes result in mine subsidence or the sinking of the earth because its foundation is disturbed. Imagine how many million tonnes of coal have been removed from inside the earth and all those holes remain large crevices. What will happen when a severe earthquake hits this region?
Then there is topographical alteration which means that there is irreparable damage to plant life and soil. No wonder large parts of East Jaintia Hills already look like barren deserts. There is loss of topsoil, erosion and the earth becomes vulnerable. Also coal mining generates millions of gallons of highly toxic, semi-solid waste called “slurry.” While in scientifically managed mines dams are built to contain the slurry and prevent it from flowing into the fields nearby, in Meghalaya nothing of the sort is done so this toxic matter flows around the areas around the mines thereby destroying the fertility of the soil. When this acid run-off from the coal stocks (AMD) sinks into the ground it affects groundwater and contaminates it and consequently the PH balance is disturbed because the acid content in water is high. Similarly the rivers and streams are affected with the AMD.
Coal dust and coke units in addition to being dirty and unpleasant smelling cause air pollution and are dangerous if inhaled over an extensive period of time. People with prolonged exposure to coal dust are at high risk of contracting “Black lung disease,” which left untreated can lead to lung cancer, pulmonary tuberculosis, and heart failure. But worse is that coal and coal waste contain heavy metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic, which are highly toxic both to plant and animal life.
But one of the scariest environmental impacts of coal mining is the threat of acid rain. The high acidity of AMD remains in the water supply even through evaporation and condensation, which enables it to stay in the atmosphere and eventually return in the form of “acid rain,” thus perpetuating the cycle of pollution.
Perhaps what we have paid very little attention to is the impact of radiation. Scientists tell us that coal contains trace elements of radium and uranium, which, when released into the environment, can lead to radioactive contamination. While it’s true that these elements occur in small amounts, the burning of coal in coke units produces dangerous levels of radioactive waste.
The most dangerous impact of coal mining is on Climate Change because high levels of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is released during the mining process, contributing to the destruction of the ozone layer. Carbon dioxide, another greenhouse gas, is released in the combustion (burning) process, when coal is used to fuel cement plants or to produce coke. Hence global warming is one of the most significant and widely-felt environmental effects of coal mining.
The poor people that the MLA of Sutnga-Saipung speaks of need better access to health care. In so many decades of wealth collection how and where did the coal lobby utilise their corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds? Have they visited the areas where Lafarge mines limestone and do they see the number of roads and footpaths constructed; water supply system augmented, medical equipment donated to PHCs, school buildings constructed and several state of the art community halls have been constructed and provided with furniture? Livelihood opportunities are being created and countless other socially and economically beneficial interventions.
Let the coal lobby name even one school they have started and maintained or a hospital they have built or even supported? It has been a purely selfish endeavour and now they dare to speak of the poor? What have they done to benefit the poor thus far? When hypocrisy speaks in the Assembly it sounds crass and deceptive. Hence a women legislator with no commitment to society and its well-being is of no consequence. Merely being a woman and an MLA does not mean that she represents women’s empowerment which is about empowering other women and charting out a new future for them away from the dependence on a non-sustainable, extractive economy.
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