The Structural Problems of Rat-Hole Mining in Meghalaya

Despite a ban on rat-hole mining in Meghalaya from 2014, the profitability of the industry has meant that no real efforts are being made to implement the ban effectively. 

On 17 April 2014, India’s National Green Tribunal (NGT) temporarily banned rat-hole mining in Meghalaya. Before this, the state government was not concerned with the prevention of rat-hole mining, which has endangered the life of miners since the 1980s.

The money from the coal brought a new level of prosperity to the lives of coal mine owners and many of them became crorepatis, and most of them are now contractors, politicians and even ministers in the state government. But the miners themselves have been crawling into the rat-holes without any safety equipment for decades. Rat-hole mines have encouraged child trafficking as well, since it is easier for children to navigate the narrow tunnels (Saddiqui 2015; Das 2015; Kharkongor, Kharkongor and Dutta 2014: 67). A majority of the miners who venture into these mines are immigrants from Assam, Nepal and Bangladesh, and are mostly Muslims (Majaw 2014: 133-136; Majaw 2016; AHRC 2010: 9-14; Kilsby 2010). They risk their lives for as little as a few hundred rupees a day.

The ban on rat-hole mining in Meghalaya was approved only after the All Dimasa Students’ Union from Assam petitioned the NGT in April 2014 by means of an urgent public interest litigation (PIL). To its credit, the NGT instituted the ban without delay on 17 April 2014 (Majaw 2016). However, most of these rat-hole mines are controlled by big bureaucrats, ministers, coal barons and contractors, who are in positions of power. Consequently, the state government prefers to remain silent about it and therefore, challenged the NGT order in the Supreme Court. The Court allowed the transportation of coal that was already extracted, so naturally, this was used as a loophole by the coal miners to continue to extract coal illegally. Five years after the NGT order, the coal business remains active despite continuing litigation against rat-hole mining in the Supreme Court (Kukreti 2018).

Meghalaya police records (available online) reveal that between April 2014 to November 2018, there have been at least 477 reported violations of the NGT order (Telegraph 2018; Lyngdoh 2017).

The tribal land system in Meghalaya is mainly community owned or privately owned and the landowners have absolute right over resources both on and below the land. Owing to the state government’s support, bureaucrats and politicians, irrespective of their political affiliations have benefited from rat-hole mining. The number of cases mentioned above does not reflect reality because police officials often collude with the mine owners. In fact, thousands of overloaded coal trucks are seen lining the Shillong–Guwahati highway (G S Road) in stark violation of the NGT order. Hundreds of those are seen parked at G S Road be it at Umiam Bridge, Sumer, Umling, Khanapara, etc.

There are truckers who dumped their coal at factories in Narbong areas of Byrnihat which are not designated dumping areas. Sources say overloaded coal trucks pay Rs. 500 to Rs. 1,000 at every police station and at various places for crossing weight bridge and buying challans. There are those who claim that coal-laden trucks ply without challan (Shillong Times 2017a and 2018d; Chhakchhuak 2018) right from the coal mines till Assam or at the border of Bangladesh. Because of this illegal mining industry, Meghalaya suffers a massive revenue loss while the Directorate of Mineral Resources lacks the will to deal with it.

Interfering with the illegal coal transportation can lead to dire consequences:  the sub-inspector and officer-in-charge of the Patharkhmah police outpost died under mysterious circumstances,  allegedly at the hands of coal merchants (Majaw 2016). In March 2018, Poipynhun Majaw, an environmental activist was killed in Khliehriat, for campaigning against the haphazard illegal mining that was being conducted in the Jaintia Hills (Laitphlang 2018). While on a mission to document the illegal extraction and transportation of coal, the president of the Civil Society Women’s Organisation (CSWO), Agnes Kharshiing and her associate Amita Sangma were attacked by a mob who allegedly worked for the state’s coal mafias at Sohshrieh, a place not far from where Poipynhun’s battered body was found whose murder still goes unsolved till date (Lyngdoh 2018; Bhattacharyya 2018). Until the two attacks on environment activists occurred the Meghalaya government denied the existence of rat-hole mining in the state (Shillong Times 2018b; Indian Express 2017). So, it is a multidimensional scam where the coal mafias and their cahoots rule the roost.

State Support for Mine Owners                                        

Meghalaya legislator Prestone Tynsong says his government will leave no stone unturned to ensure that the NGT lifts the ban (Energy World 2018). Chief Minister Conrad Sangma made a statement in the assembly supporting the resolution that was passed by the last Congress government on 24 September 2015, to request the centre to invoke Paragraph 12 A (b) of the Sixth Schedule which can potentially exempt  Meghalaya from the central laws related to mining. He also led a delegation of his ministers to New Delhi and met coal minister Piyush Goyal to discuss the NGT Order (Shillong Times 2018a; Assam Tribune 2017). The previous government led by  Mukul Sangma also felt that Meghalaya ought to be exempted from the central mining (Indian Express 2017). So a majority of those in power favour a repeal of the NGT order. Encouraged by this position, the coal mine owners have also continually petitioned the NGT and the Supreme Court to allow them to transport the coal that had been extracted before the ban.  The Supreme Court had also complied to the demands made by the coal mine owners, despite an earlier ruling that said “no coal in any form whatsoever shall be permitted to be transported after May 15, 2016” (Economic Times 2016).

Rat-hole Tragedy

On 13 December 2018, illegal mining activities made headlines when more than 13 labourers trapped inside a rat-hole mine, not far from where the activists working against rat-hole mining were attacked. The incident vindicates the stand of these activists that the coal mafia is extracting coal through illegal rat-holes despite the NGT ban (Pisharoty 2018). Even by the end of January 2019, rescue teams consisting of the National Disaster Response Force (NRDF) and the Indian Navy divers failed to recover the bodies of the miners, even with the help of a  high powered submersible pump. While the families of the 13 miners have lost hope, the incumbent Congress Member of Parliament, Vincent H Pala,  urged the central government to regularise rat-hole mining in order to avoid such accidents (Shillong Times 2018c). To demand legalisation betrays the ruling elite’s lack of concern for the miners and shows the NGT’s inability to punish the coal barons who keep violating the ban.  Institutions succumb to the coal-mining lobbies which keep demanding that the deadline to transport extracted coal be extended. From 2016, it has already been extended a few times with the last one being 30 November 2019. (Telegraph 2017; Hindu 2018).

 On 4 June 2019, the NGT  slapped a Rs 100 crores fine on the Meghalaya government for its failure to curb illegal coal mining (Hindustan Times 2019), which has to be paid from taxes. Therefore, there is now a nexus of exploitation that exists between those who hold power and control mining in Meghalaya, and central institutions that are further enabling them. The common people are the ones that end up having to pay the price.  


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