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DAILY NEWS ANALYSIS

  • 01 June, 2021

  • 18 Min Read

5 trapped in Meghalaya coal mine after dynamite blast

5 trapped in the Meghalaya coal mine after a dynamite blast

  • A dynamite blast led to the flooding of a coal mine in the East Jaintia Hills district in Meghalaya, trapping five labourers.

Illegal Mining in Meghalaya

  • According to available government data, Meghalaya has a total coal reserve of 640 million tonnes, most of which is mined unscientifically by individuals and communities.
  • In 2011–12, rat-hole mines produced about 10 million tonnes of coal. This large coal production in a small state had a devastating impact on the environment.

Some of the areas of Coal mining in Meghalaya are

  • Ksan in Meghalaya’s East Jaintia Hills

What is a rat hole mine?

  • A rat-hole mine comprises a deep vertical shaft with narrow horizontal tunnels, two to four feet in dimension, dug on its sides.
  • Miners (mostly child labourers) go into these horizontal tunnels for hundreds of feet to take out coal. Primitive tools are used to build and operate these mines and accidents are common and most are not reported.
  • Rat hole mining involves digging of very small tunnels, usually only 3-4 feet high, which workers (often children) enter and extract coal.
  • The National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned it in 2014, on grounds of it being unscientific and unsafe for workers. The state (Meghalayan) government has challenged the NGT ban in the Supreme Court.
  • Despite a ban, rat-hole mining remains a prevalent practice for coal mining in Meghalaya, where a mine has recently collapsed.
  • Since the coal seam is extremely thin in Meghalaya, no other method would be economically viable. Removal of rocks from the hilly terrain and putting up pillars inside the mine to prevent collapse would be costlier. In Meghalaya, this is the locally developed technique and the most commonly used one.

Government policy?

  • The government does not have a policy in place to regulate mining and the new mining policy drafted in 2012 has not yet been implemented,
  • Moreover, the NGT found the 2012 policy inadequate as it does not address rat-hole mining.

Impact of Meghalaya coal mining

  • Meghalaya coal has high sulphur content, leading to the discharge of sulphuric acid from these mines. The acid discharge in some areas is so severe that they have made the rivers acidic, affecting aquatic life and corroding machinery at hydroelectric projects and dams.
  • The water also has a high concentration of sulphates, iron and toxic heavy metals, low dissolved oxygen (DO) and high BOD, showing its degraded quality.
  • The roadside dumping of coal is a major source of air, water and soil pollution.
  • None of the rat-hole mines had leases; they simply didn’t exist on paper. All of them were operating without any environmental clearance from the environment ministry or from the pollution control board. These illegalities were enabled by the so-called legal ambiguity regarding mining in Sixth Schedule areas as mentioned in the Constitution.
  • As Meghalaya is a Sixth Schedule state, and the power to make laws with respect to the land belongs to the Autonomous District Councils, landowners can mine without any permission from the state or the Union governments. To bolster the argument, it alluded that the coal mines in Meghalaya were never nationalised.
  • However, it was found that the coal mines of Khasi and Jaintia were nationalised under the Coal Mines (Nationalisation) Act, 1973.
  • It is also found that paragraph 9 of the Sixth Schedule clearly stipulates the need for “Licences or leases for the purpose of prospecting for, or extraction of, minerals”.
  • In addition, it is legally established that all central mining and environmental laws are applicable to the coal mines in Meghalaya.
  • On a case filed by the All Dimasa Students’ Union that highlighted the unregulated coal mining in the Jaintia Hills, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned them in April 2014. But reports now indicate that in the guise of transporting already-mined coal, illegal mining was happening all along in collusion with the local and the state government.
  • The political class supports these mines. The state government has challenged the ban in the Supreme Court and the state assembly in 2015 adopted a resolution urging the Centre to exempt Meghalaya from central laws so that rat-hole mining can continue.
  • But such mines are environmentally damaging and unsafe to be allowed, and hence must be banned. The bottom line is the right to self-governance does not translate into the right to destroy the environment, even in the Sixth Schedule areas.
  • Off-road movement of trucks and other vehicles in the area for coal transportation also adds to the ecological and environmental damage to the area.
  • The practice has been declared as unsafe for workers by the NGT.
  • The mines branch into networks of horizontal channels, which are at constant risk of caving in or flooding.

Source: TH


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