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Battle for Meghalaya: Economy and environment intersect with the elections

In Meghalaya’s coal belt, people believe the ban on mining is good for environment, bad for jobs. But illegal mining persists and the government is under pressure.

india Updated: Jan 12, 2018 08:02 IST
Prashant Jha
Labourers load a truck with coal at depot in Jaintia Hills, Meghalaya. In the state’s political field, all actors are privately conscious of the need to protect the environment, but they publicly want to be seen as favouring the economy.
Labourers load a truck with coal at depot in Jaintia Hills, Meghalaya. In the state’s political field, all actors are privately conscious of the need to protect the environment, but they publicly want to be seen as favouring the economy. (Getty Images)

Driving from the town of Jowai in the West Jaintia Hills to the village of Mukhep in the East Jaintia Hills, Sannio Siangshai, 43, wistfully looks out of the car at barren fields.

“I am a child of the mines. My mother was a coal miner. That allowed us to get education and join professions like the media. But look at the destruction around us. Once coal is dumped on a field, not a blade of grass grows. I have seen river streams turn acidic, unusable. You can’t drink water, there is no aquatic life, you can’t wash clothes, streams disappear. You do need scientific mining.”

A few minutes earlier, Siangshai, wearing the hat of a professional journalist with no personal view on the matter, had suggested that the biggest issue in the Jaintia Hills - which sends seven members to the 60-member Meghalaya Assembly - was the 2014 National Green Tribunal ban on coal mining. Official estimates suggested the state used to then produce 5.8 million metric tonnes of coal annually.

It was the second largest contributor to the state’s revenues. And suddenly, with the ban, labourers had lost jobs, owners were angry, economy was disrupted. And everyone blamed the Congress government for not preventing the ban with sound policies, Siangshai said.

As we drove across, there were a row of lorries causing a traffic jam, a frequent occurrence, even more intense before the official ban. The lorries were transporting exactly what had been banned, down through the Jaintia Hills to the rest of the Northeast, and even across the border to Bangladesh. Siangshai mocked the regulation, “There is law and there is reality.”

Three contrasting images define the state of Meghalaya’s most precious resource. A concern over the environmental impact of coal mining and even appreciation for the ban in the long term; the strongly-held view that the ban is wrong in the short term; and the rampant illegal mining that persists because of an NGT loophole because of which already extracted coal is allowed to be transported (letting miners use it as a cover).

This situation defines how the Indian state - in its central, state, regulatory and enforcement avatars - can act at cross purposes. And it shows how economy and environment can shape the mood of a substantial section of the electorate as a state heads to polls.

The life of a miner

If someone stands at the intersection of it all, it is a miner. A non-tribal who started as a labourer in a coal mine 38 years ago; who became a ‘sardar’, head,of labourers; who slowly acquired a piece of land, and then more land, who then began mining and trading, and is now sitting on exploited and unexploited coal worth ₹ 500 crore; who ensured that both he and his family converted to Christianity to be a part of Meghalaya’s milieu.

But as he personally drives a small car, and sits on a stool in a small tea shop, there is no trace of wealth earned through mining, or anger at the ban.

He agrees to speak on the condition of anonymity.

“My people, my fellow miners won’t like it. I must tell you. What NGT has done is right for future generations. There has to be a system.”

So does it mean that people in the area, and local owners, were fine with the ban? He laughed. “No. All that matters for everyone is today, the present. See, mining is legitimate. The government should have had a system. A lot of these resources will be finished soon. In East Jaintia, 70% reserves are over. But the point is no one cares about tomorrow. They want to punish the Congress. It should have brought a policy.”

When asked how the ban had affected people like him, he smiles and says, “Look at the trucks. I can take you to mines. Nothing has changed, except that we dump it discreetly.”

But if illegal transactions are continuing, what is the problem for him? “They have made us a chor, thief. I am scared of the law. Why are they making us do things which we don’t want?”

In real terms, he claimed miners were paying as much money, but to officials and not the state’s economy. “Everyone in government is making money but not the government itself because miners and transporters and traders overload, they take illegally extracted coal. There are many cement factories to which coal is going directly, with no checks, which means no revenues, with complicity of people in government.”

All of this has left him in a peculiar position. He made most of his money under the Congress, but blames the sa- me party. And so he felt that it was time to give a chance to others.

“NPP’s Conrad Sangma spoke about mining in Parliament. If the BJP comes to power, given they are at the Centre, they will do something at least and solve it. Let’s try it.”

And the politics

In Meghalaya’s political field, all actors are privately conscious of the need to protect the environment, but they publicly want to be seen as favouring the economy over the environment in what has got framed as a zero sum game - since they believe that is the popular sentiment. This bind is now playing out electorally.

Insisting that he had done his best to resolve the issue, Chief Minister Mukul Sangma rejected any allegation that illegal mining was happening at all.

“It is not taking place. If it is, we are monitoring it. There are checks. There is an enquiry. Cases are registered. No one will get away.” He also rejected any allegation - rife in the state - that his family was involved in mining and said they had moved out of the business in 2007-08.

Conrad Sangma, the NPP leader, blamed the government for the overall coal economy. “It began with environment, moved to safety of miners, and has now moved to ownership. Government of India wants to know how private individuals mine here despite nationalisation of coal. Our position is they do so legally, and are exempted under the sixth schedule. GOI then asks show us proof that this is indeed allowed. Meghalaya government has not been able to offer this, frame a scientific mining policy and clear the issue. I won’t make big promises but we will resolve the issue.”

For now, the Meghalaya political establishment seems to have come to a contract. Do little to resolve the structural constraints to mining. Let it continue blindly since private coffers are being filled up. At the same time, show oneself to be the victim. But politicians and the voters know this is not tenable, and the elections may well bring matters to a head.