At least three rivers across Meghalaya’s coal belts are dead. A few, such as river Waikhyrwi, have been diverted to facilitate mining on the riverbed. And a 275MW hydroelectric project in Assam has been hit by acidic content of river Kopili flowing down from a major coal mining zone in Meghalaya.
Associated with scams and Mafiosi control elsewhere in India, coal is intrinsic to Meghalaya’s politics – coalmines rule 12 of the 60 assembly constituencies and impact the local economy of 20 more. Understandably, more than half the 113 millionaires contesting the February 23 polls are coal barons.
The millionaires include chief minister Mukul Sangma’s wife Dikkanchi D Shira, the Congress candidate for Mahendraganj seat in South West Garo Hills district. The richest of them all, Ngaitlang Dhar, is also a Congress candidate with declared assets worth Rs. 235crore.
Dhar is contesting the Umroi seat in Ri-Bhoi district, far from East Jaintia Hills district where he owns many coal mines.
The rule of coal is most evident in East Jaintia Hill district, where all seven candidates in Sutnga Saipung and Khliehriat assembly constituencies are coalmine owners. They attribute their candidature to people’s wish, but activists say it is to strengthen the coal lobby.
“Meghalaya’s unscientific coalmines have given black money a different connotation. The mine owners hardly spare a thought for the environment, which has been degraded beyond repair in many pockets because of high sulphur content in the coal here. No wonder, the draft mining policy last year was in favour of coal barons besides not taking the issues of the unhealthy rat-hole mining and child miners into account,” said social activist HH Mohrmen.
The disease, he added, lies in the government’s non-interference because of traditional land usage policy that gives rich tribal people control over resources.
But coal mine owners and operators insist the mining business is no longer lucrative. This is because new policies have given consumers in northern India access to cheaper imported coals. Even the market next door — Bangladesh — is feeling the pinch of Meghalaya’s expensive coal.