Over eight years ago the illegal coal mining, including the more dangerous practice of rat-hole mining banned by the National Green Tribunal after terming it as unscientific and most hazardous, the prohibited activities, however, continues in Meghalaya and other northeastern states despite the Supreme Court and High Court’s series of subsequent directions.
Environmental experts, activists and various NGOs have protested the illegal coal mining, saying that the illegal activities continued with the active support of a section of most powerful politicians while the law enforcing agencies remained silent.
To meet their election expenditure and to create their assets, a section of political leaders sponsors the coal mafia and coal traders of both northeast and outside the region to do the illegal trades and activities, destroying the environment and often killing poor people.
Rat-hole mining, an extremely unsafe practice in Meghalaya, Assam and other northeastern states, involves digging narrow tunnels, each of which fits only one person to enter and extract coal by poor and young people for their livelihood benefiting the coal traders.
The full bench of the Meghalaya High Court led by Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee strongly criticised the state government on December 7, and said that despite several orders from the Supreme Court, High Court and the NGT, illegal mining of coal continues in the state, with possible ‘state participation and even encouragement’.
Social activist Agnes Kharshiing, who has been at the forefront of exposing illegal coal mining activities in Meghalaya, said that a section of politicians and lawmakers in Meghalaya are directly involved in the illegal coal mining despite the NGT banned the activities in April 2014.
Demanding a CBI probe in the illegal coal mining, Kharshiing told IANS: “The activities have been going on openly for the past many years, the Enforcement Directorate, CBI and other agencies have remained blind to these serious matters.”
“Those politicians, officials and people who are involved in the illegal coal mining, they should be in jail. Occasionally, the police arrest some poor fellow.”
Kharshiing, President of the Civil Society Women’s Organisation, said that coal mafia and illegal drug traders were funding the expenditures of the political parties and that was why they were sponsoring such illegal activities.
“Illegally extracted coal is being exported to Bangladesh. Cement factories, brick kilns and many other factories are being operated through these coals. Pollution Control Boards and other authorities know everything but doing nothing,” said the rights activist, who was brutally assaulted by the suspected coal mafia in East Jaintia Hills district for her activism in 2018.
She said that the government was also losing hundreds and thousands of crores of royalty due to the illegal coal mining.
Environment expert and Centre for Aquatic Research and Environment Secretary Apurba Kumar Dey said that the forest cover has been declining in all the eights states of northeastern region dur to various illegal activities, including coal mining, traditional “Jhum” farming (slash and burn method of cultivation) and farming of Ganja (marijuana) plantations.
“Sometimes, the extremist outfits also get involved in the unlawful coal mining for their earning. A big nexus between a section of politicians, officials, mafia, traders has been going on in Meghalaya and other northeastern states,” Dey told IANS. .
Earlier this year, a court-appointed committee headed by retired Justice B.P. Katakey (retired) had submitted a strongly-worded report, pointing out that except for notifying the Meghalaya Minerals (Prevention of Illegal Mining, Transportation and Storage) Rules, 2022 on March 24, 2022, none of the directions issued by the Supreme Court and the NGT had been complied with by the authorities concerned.
The December 7 High Court order said that according to the information furnished by the Secretary, Mining and Geology Department, a large number of coke oven plants and ferro alloys plants are operating in the state but only a limited few have consent to establish and consent to operate which is granted by the Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board.
Noting that apart from the fact that several coke oven and ferro alloys plants are operational without due permission, the source of coal at these plants has neither been identified nor reported on by the state, the court directed to the Secretary, Mining and Geology Department to identify the source of coal and the Chief Secretary would be responsible in this regard.
An official of Meghalaya government, however, said that the state government has framed an action plan in view of the NGT order on coke plants and it was expected to be implemented within a month from the date of its notification.
As to the transportation and auction of the previously mined coal, the exercise should proceed as planned.
The remainder of the coal out of the approximately 32,56,715 M.T. as indicated in the Chief Secretary’s report of September 20 has also to be auctioned since that is illegally mined.
The directions issued by Justice Katakey on the transportation and auction of the previously mined coal should be adhered to and the drone videography and photography should be completed without undue delay, the court said
Justice Katakey would oversee the transportation and sale of even such part of the coal and any further quantity that may be seized by the state as a consequence of the illegal mining that continues, the HC said.
Many workers have got trapped in the illegal and unsafe mines and subsequently died — five in May/June last year but only three bodies were retrieved from the flooded coal mine after hectic efforts for over 27 days in East Jaintia Hills district.
In December 2018, in a major tragedy in the same district, 15 migrant miners from Assam died inside an abandoned coal mine.
The 15 miners, whose bodies were never found, had been stuck in the coal mine at a depth of nearly 370 feet after a tunnel was flooded with water from the nearby Lytein river.
On September 18, three workers of an illegal coal mine located inside a forest area on the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border at Lido town in Assam’s Tinsukia district were killed after inhaling toxic gas.
The mine was operated by one David Haseng, a resident of Arunachal Pradesh, who remained absconding after the incident.
On November 14, twelve people were killed after a large portion of a stone quarry collapsed in the Maudarh village in Mizoram’s Hnahthial district while they were working in the stone pit. Of the 12 workers, five hailed from West Bengal while three were from Assam and two each from Jharkhand and Mizoram.
Recurring accidents and lack of safety of miners and various other unscientific activities forced the NGT to ban the illegal mining.
Traditionally the tribal land system in Meghalaya is mainly community or privately owned and the landowners have total right over the resources both on and beneath the land.
Some politicians in Meghalaya are now demanding that rat-hole mining be legalised.
“Why should the people suffer for the sake of failure of a policy? There are times when we should see what is more valuable — human lives or other concerns. People should not be hanging on to their vital livelihood matters,” a senior ruling National People’s Party leader said, refusing to be named.
He said that for over four decades, rat-hole mining was allowed and only now some authority realised that it is harmful.
The government should do a study to assess whether open-cast mining is feasible in the state, the NPP leader suggested.
(Sujit Chakraborty can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)