By Albert Thyrniang
Rat hole coal mining in the State was outlawed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) of the Supreme Court in April 2014. However, the order of the country’s highest legal institution has been continuously flouted non-stop ever since. The illegal mining and transportation has been going on unabated. Incident after incident, evidence after evidence has surfaced establishing the blatant disregard for the law of the land. The latest is the report filed by Justice (retired) Katakey before the Meghalaya High Court on November 22. Following the visit to East Jaintia Hills the Single Member Committee found huge quantities of fresh coal dumped on both sides of Don Bosco College in Byndihati village. The catch is not part of seized and recorded coal earlier. Even a weighbridge was detected in the vicinity. The rampant illegal mining and storing continue to pollute river water bodies in Kyrhuhkhla and Lunar areas even as restoration of the same is being carried out. The battle to address acid mine drainage which has turned the water toxic is a futile exercise.
Locals in the area confirm the unrestricted activities. Trucks from remote coal mines and from the stocking grounds move in and out unhindered. Movement is throughout the day but more so at night. They have never seen Deputy Commissioners (DCs) and Superintendents of Police (SPs) visiting the dumping grounds leave alone the mining sites. When asked, “Why such lawlessness?” They sigh, “Ah, the coal and the quarries belong to prominent politicians. Everybody knows it. So who will keep the law if law makers break the law?” They name some local heavyweights and ‘surprisingly’ MLAs from South West Khasi Hills as culprits. “These are the high level,” sources concede.
Following the field visits the DCs/ ADCs and the police were apprised of the report and instructed to conduct an enquiry on the illegal coal mining activities. A report may be produced within the stipulated time. These days police personnel are being despatched to the locations. But why not at other times? Why take notice only post the report of High Court’s committee? Why are they alert only when tragedies, like Ksan occur? At other times the machinery is in sleep mode. All the DCs and SPs have standing orders from the apex court to ensure the complete closure of all coal mining activities.
Now, are the district administrations and the police department not doing their duties? Are the DCs and SPs neglecting their responsibilities? Are they intentionally not supervising the coal mines? Then why has no one been taken to task? The answer could be that DCs and SPs have an understanding with politician-businessmen and women including those who were and are in the MDA I and II Governments. This is the strong perception of the people this writer talked to. It is common knowledge that the bureaucrats comply with the instructions of the political masters. They don’t dare to displease them. They don’t want to risk promotion and an uneventful tenure in office by confronting politicians. They forget that they have sworn by the Constitution. It is rare to find officers who perform their duties without fear or favour. Many take the easiest option of a cosy relationship with ministers, MLAs, MDCs and others even if they fully know that illegality is central. Otherwise, how else do we explain why they have not been able to lessen the illegal mining of coal and its transportation for over nine years in a small state like Meghalaya?
The blame stops at the desk of the government. The present MDA government is responsible. The 18th interim report does contradict the state government’s repeated ‘no illegal coal mining and transportation’ claims. But we recall that the government has also admitted its non-commitment to banish the illegality from the hills. Only in July this year, Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad K Sangma stated that is not possible to stop illegal coal mining completely. The statement actually translates to, ‘the government will not make an all-out effort to end illegal coal mining’. He blames the lack of alternative livelihoods for the workers to justify the non-compliance of the Supreme Court’s order. It might have been sudden in 2014 but we are now in the 10th year. The illegal business is coming to light more and more. It is the government which should provide alternative livelihoods; not the court.
After a decade not even an attempt has been made to provide alternative avenues. The promised ‘modern mining technique’ that takes care of environmental concerns is nowhere in sight. The Deputy chief minister in charge of Home, Prestone Tynsong too refused to accept responsibility saying the phenomenon is not new. What does he mean by old phenomenon? Much of the illegality has been spurned during his government’s rule. The inability to curb this menace is on the shoulders of the current and the previous government firmly led by the NPP. Post the Ksan tragedy the same minister dismissed allegations saying ‘the police cannot reach all the corners of the state’.
This government is lackadaisical in its attitude. The illegal mining and transportation was so blatant that the Home Minister from the NPP had to be removed at the behest of the UDP. Things did not improve under the charge of the UDP home minister. The NPP is now back with the Home Department. Things are the same because coal is lucrative for everyone. Hence the coalition partners will not lambast the government. It is the High Court of the state that’s doing it. In the month of May the court accused the government of “nurturing” illegal coal mine operators and suspected that the illegal activities have the blessings of people in power. Imagine 13 lakh metric tonnes of coal just went missing! The government and its arms of the district administrations and the police are clueless as to where and how the inventorised ‘black diamond’ disappeared. It is shamefully amazing. Left to the government alone the ugliest point of lawlessness would certainly arrive. Following its suo motto notice on March 7, 2022 hope the court will deliver a verdict that fixes responsibilities, punishes all the major culprits and rids the state of the mess.
Government includes the Opposition. That’s what political science teaches us. Through criticism the Opposition helps the government of the day to act. As pointed out in this paper the Opposition has almost completely gone silent on many issues including the illegal coal mining and transportation. This is natural because the Congress and NPP cannot be rivals at the state while being comrades in the KHADC. The UDP and the NPP will never be genuine opposition in the KHADC while they are partners in the state. Apart from VPP and the TMC there is no opposition. After his ‘failed efforts’ to jump to the BJP ship, Mukul Sangma sees the judge’s report as clear evidence for an FIR to be filed, to probe the suspected criminal conspiracy in the glaring large scale illegal coal mining. Mukul also put the quantity of missing coal at 32+ lakh metric tonnes. This has complemented the outspoken George Lyngdoh who also battles the NPP’s pulls. The largely artificial opposition is totally indifferent to the illegal coal activities. The whole state is suffering due to an Opposition cursed by conflicts of interests.
The pressure groups are always in a lull where coal is concerned. Some of their members have been arrested for extortion. They call themselves ‘Seng Bhalang.’ Are they for the common good? One leader has been nabbed for taking protection money from overloaded trucks to ply over the Umiam bridge. Is endangering the expired bridge a common good? A leader of the commemoration of groups that opposed the Sunday Cherry Blossom festival is in police custody for demanding free fuel from a petrol pump. How is it that holding a festival on Sunday is unholy while extortion is not wrong?
In relation to the present issue if all pressure groups speak up against illegal coal mining and transportation; if they organised rallies like they do for demanding the Inner Line Permit (ILP); if they protest like they stand against railways, if they oppose with gusto like they rail against governments; if they care for the environment, if they are concerned with revenue leakage, if they are for the interest of the ‘Jaitbynriew’ and the state the illegal coal mining and transportation would not have survived for so long. No pressure group has raised their voices against the hazards. I learnt from my sources that these pressure groups too have their own ‘check gates.”
There is no explanation for the flourishing illegal coal mining and the ease with which trucks pass through highways except through the involvement of powerful politicians and influential dealers who could instruct cops to facilitate the trade. It is not possible for the illegal activities to thrive if the civil society united fight against this money-driven activity. We are found wanting at the administrative and societal front but more seriously at governmental level. The Meghalaya High Court seems to our only chance to help us be guided by the rule of law.