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Ksan Tragedy

Ksan Tragedy

No sooner had Rahul Gandhi used it in the Lok Sabha on July 20 last year, ‘Jumla’ became the most searched word on Google.  Today the Hindi/Urdu word which mean ‘total’, ‘all’, ‘complete’ or ‘aggregate’ has come to mean a ‘ false, unrealistic and fulfilled promise’. It means a promise that is made merely to deceive voters and win elections. One of the commonest terms in India today, ‘Jumla’ is bound to be one of the latest non-English words to be incorporated in English dictionary.

You may wonder how is ‘jumla’ connected with the Meghalaya mining tragedy that was and is being reported by the national and international media . Well, before the link a recap of the fatal incident is of interest. On 13 December 2018, 15 or 16 miners were trapped in an illegal mine in the remote village of Ksan in the East Jaintia Hills, the state of Meghalaya, North East India. The incident is now known as Ksan tragedy. A combined rescue operation involving the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), the State Disaster Response Force, the Indian Air Force , the Indian Navy and others has been going on till date and have managed to retrieve one decomposed body and detected another from the 370 feet deep, flooded coal mine.

‘Rat-hole’ mining

In Meghalaya mining of coal is carried out through an outdated, traditional technique called ‘rat-hole’ mining. The name is derived from the way rats make holes for their dwelling. The method involves digging a pit to 350 deep and then narrow horizontal tunnels of 3-4 feet high are dug for workers to enter and extract the ‘black diamond’. These tunnels are just enough to fit one person to almost crawl inside.

Unregulated and unsafe mining

Mining in the state is totally unregulated. There is no safety norm whatsoever. With bare hands miners enter the mines with pickaxes and wheelbarrows to extract coal. Some say it is the cruellest practice of mining. Many incidents have taken place in the past when miners were buried alive inside after the mines gave way. Some died of suffocation when carbon dioxide or monoxide emit from the mines. Few of such cases were reported. Rat-hole mines are literally death traps.

Mining is unregulated because mines belong to private owners. Meghalaya falls under the Sixth Schedule which gives rights and autonomy to tribals (owners) over land and forests (falsely) implying that national mining laws do not apply here. Experts and activists however, point out that the state is not exempt from the Coal Mines (Nationalisation) Act of 1973, which bestows the Indian state ownership and control of underground minerals. The state government has never applied for any exemption. Aggravating the situation the state government mining policy of 2012 assures that the “small and traditional system of mining followed by local people in their own land shall not be disturbed”.

Adverse impact on the environment

Commercially taken off after 1980s, the unscientific mining has devastatingly impacted the environment. Fertile land has been rendered uncultivable. Rivers and streams in the affected areas have turned acidic. Water in rivers turned brownish. Water bodies have become highly polluted. Samples taken from rivers have shown pH levels of around 3, way below the range of 6.5 to 8.2 that is considered optimal for aquatic organisms. Villagers who depend on fishing for livelihood reveal that species of fish were found dead in rivers. In all, rampant mining resulted in large-scale deforestation, scarcity of water, air, water and soil pollution together with degradation of cultivatable land.

Rat-hole mining proscribed

Concerns for miners' safety and the hazards caused to the environment meant that the notorious and now ‘internationally well-known rat-hole mining’ (courtesy the tragedy) was banned. Following a petition filed by the Assam based All Dimasa Students' Union that the toxic discharge from coal mines in Meghalaya was polluting streams and rivers in Assam, the NGT banned rat-hole mining on April 17, 2014. Approximately the state government lost Rs. 700 crore annually or 7-8 per cent of the state's GDP that accounted for 27 per cent of the total revenue generated from the estimated 6 million tonnes coal production. 

Rampant mining despite the ban

Despite the ban illegal mining continued unabated with full knowledge of the state government, the district administrations and the police. In fact, the government repeatedly denied any illegal mining. Hence no effort was made to implement the NGT’s order. Under the pretext of transporting coal (allowed by the Supreme Court on petitions by coal mine owners) extracted prior to ban, illegal mining of fresh coal was going on with full knowledge of the authorities up to the highest.  Several times NGT and anti-mining activists pointed out that mining still continued rampantly in violation of the ban. Two activists were brutally and almost fatally attacked by the mining mafia in November last year in Jaintia Hills while they were on a visit to gather evidence of mining in the district.

Now the jumla

The ban happened during the Congress regime. But in February 2018 there was election to the State Legislative Assembly. The coal mining ban became a huge issue. Merely to woo coal miners BJP and NPP promised lifting the ban on coal mining, if voted to power. The BJP included the promise in manifesto called ‘Vision Document’. ‘The party will promote mining of mineral resources with a sense of responsibility towards the protection of the environment and regeneration of forests’, states the manifesto as part of other gargantuan promises. Similarly the NPP through its Chief, Conrad K Sangma pledge d to restart coal mining if his party was given the mandate to rule the state. During campaigns he repeatedly accused the previous government of taking away the livelihood of the people and promised that he would ensure resumption of mining if his party were to secure a majority.

The NPP eventually formed the government in the state with the support of the BJP and regional parties christened as Meghalaya Democratic Alliance (MDA). Mr. Conrad himself became the Chief Minister. The two parties above knew very well that it would be extremely difficult to convince the NGT to lift the ban in the absence of a mining policy that ensures high safety standards and minimum environmental effect. The BJP and the NPP knew at the back of their mind that it would be next to impossible to make the NGT reverse its previous judgment. The unrealistic promise was meant to be broken and hence a sort of a jumla.

Experts say scientific in Meghalaya is even more damaging. A report, quoting an expert, explains that in places like Assam and Jharkhand, the coal seam is broader and is located vertically. But in Meghalaya the width of the coal seam is 2-3 feet and it runs horizontally. To extract the same amount of coal that one can get within a kilometre in other parts, here one has to mine for several kilometres. Hence scientific mining means will cause environmental destruction on a much large scale. Did not the afore-mentioned parties know this?

The dark realities

Politicians control the mining business in the state. A citizens' report that was filed in the Supreme Court say that top politicians have stakes in the industry. Names include the then ministers like Kyrmen Shylla, minister for revenue, disaster management and social welfare, Lahkmen Rymbui, minister for environment and forests, Comingone Ymbon, minister for public works, Sniawbhalang Dhar, minister for commerce and industries and transport besides Vincent Pala, Congress Lok Sabha MP, and Dikkanchi D. Shira, MLA and wife of former chief minister, Mukul Sangma.

Another shady reality is that coal barons, businessmen and owners fund elections in Meghalaya. The coal money can decide the outcome of an election like it probably did in the last election. Therefore, no government can afford to displease the powerful coal lobby, often called mafia. This mafia has nexus with politicians, police and even with bureaucrats.

The Ksan tragedy has exposed the illegal, hazardous mining that has flourished under political patronage and under a mafia in collusion with vital arms of the government. 15 labourers have to perish for us to notice. Unless hard corrective actions are taken we will continue to stare at these dark realities in the ‘Abode of Clouds’. 

(Published on 04th February 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 06)