Meghalaya Mining: Two Weeks On, 15 Workers Still Trapped; IAF & Odisha Fire Services Extend Help
It has been two weeks since at least 15 mine workers have been trapped in an illegal mine in Meghalaya’s coal-rich East Jaintia Hills area. Now the Indian Air Force and a 21-member team of Odisha Fire Services have come forward to lend their help.
In the north-eastern state of Meghalaya, where illegal coal mining has been on the rise, many have lost their lives in the life-gambling occupation. The state which is famous for rat-hole mining (a term used in coal mining because of mine’s hole like size) has numerous unregulated and unmonitored coal mines. Time and again many tragedies have taken place. In one such recent incident, 15 miners are feared dead after an illegal coal mine which they were digging collapsed on them on December 13. The incident happened in the area in which mining was banned by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) four years ago.
The Indian Air Force, which reached the spot on December 27 has been airlifting men and equipment including high power pumps of National Disaster Management Authority to Guwahati, as reported by NDTV.
Apart from IAF, a 21-member team of firefighters from Orissa also arrived on December 28. The team led by chief fire officer Sukanta Sethi left for Shillong in special IAF aircraft along with 20 high-power pumps, as reported by Hindustan Times. Director general of fire service and commandant general, home guards and director civil defence BK Sharma said, “Each of the pumps can dewater 1,600 litres of water a minute and we hope the miners can be rescued. We are one of the few states that is experienced in handling such calamities. We could have gone much earlier, but the request from MHA came yesterday (Thursday).”
15 trapped, feared dead
While speaking to the NDTV, the district police chief Sylvester Nongtngr said that the coal mine was located close to Lytein river and it was being operated illegally.
The officer further said that he believes that the mine, where the workers are trapped is an old one, on which the illegal activity resumed around three-four days back. Talking about the accident some locals said that the miners might have accidentally breached another old (and illegal) coal mine filled with water, which resulted in flooding the mine. As of now 15 people, including three residents of Lumthari village, are feared trapped and dead inside a mine, reports the Hindustan Times. However, a survivor of the mishap, 25-year-old Sayeb Ali said that 17, not 15 miners are trapped, as reported by Firstpost.
Nongtngr had told the NDTV then, “We are doing our best to reach out to them (trapped people).” According to the police, the flooding in the mine is making the rescue operations difficult. The officer added that the water is being pumped out of the mines with the help of a generator. The local villagers, who are well acquainted with the place are also helping in the rescue operations. A case has been registered against the mine owners. An owner of such mine Jrin Chullet, aka Krip Chullet was arrested by the police, on Friday night after a raid on his home in Narwan village. However, his accomplice, James Sukhlain, is absconding, as reported by Scroll.
Panic gripped on December 27 when divers reportedly detected a foul smell, further cementing the speculation about the death of those trapped.
‘Rat-like mines’ have killed many
In 2014, the NGT had banned coal mining in the area, however, the effects of the ban seem to be negligible. The state is also infamous for illegal coal mining. It has nearly 640 million tonnes of coal reserves and the local miners dig out at least five million metric tons of coal by hand each year.
The problem which is rampant for more than 150 years in the state, also employs many people from different parts of the country. Many people who come from Nepal in search of jobs also end up working in these mines. These miners working in these small mines are almost of all ages, though a bigger chunk among them are minors, who ends up doing this hazardous work for minimal wages and without any safety gears, as reported by the Hindustan Times.
Many have lost their lives while doing such precarious work. This recent tragedy in the state is not the first one. In February 2014, four miners were killed when a few walls of an illegal mine collapsed in Garo Hills. Something similar happened in December 2013, when five miners died after a contraption cable, which was carrying them down broke in an illegal mine located in Jaintia Hills. Previously in July 2012, at least 15 miners died due to drowning in an illegal mine in Garo Hills, after an underground stream flowing near the mine flooded the area, as reported by the Hindustan Times.
Even after the NGT’s ban for the last so many years, the illegal mining work continues to happen. Last week, satellite images taken by the North East Space Application Centre (NESAC) showed that the mining work is still prevalent in the area. While taking to the Hindustan Times, the editor of The Shillong Times, Patricia Mukhim said, “There’s complicity in what’s going on among bureaucrats, coal mafia, police and politicians. How does one explain mining going on despite the NGT ban?”.
Last month, two activists, Agnes Kharsiing and Amita Sangma, were attacked. The activists have done extensive work against illegal mining in the state. Kharshiing is a women’s rights activist and president of the Civil Society Women’s Organization (CSWO). She has been fighting against rampant coal smuggling in Jaintia Hills region. The coal burning in the region is taking place despite ban the National Green Tribunal (NGT).
The NGT’s ban also left thousands of people jobless, in the past, the local coal mine owner association, have staged many protests against the ban as well. In February, prior to the assembly elections in Meghalaya, the BJP government had promised to lift the ban within six months if it was voted to power.