Unscientific, ecology-endangering rat-hole coal mines have been a reality in Meghalaya for decades. But it has take the disappearance of 15 miners in a water-filled mine and a flabbergasted National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) team to find out that these mines lack basic safety structure.
Some 30 miners, migrants from Assam and Jharkhand, deep inside a rat-hole mine had on July 6 afternoon punctured the wall of an adjoining abandoned mine that was filled with rainwater. Half of them clambered to safety before the water gushed in to flood the mine owned by the nokma (traditional chief) of Rongsa Awe village in South Garo Hills district.
On Friday, an 80-member NDRF team wrapped up a two-day operation to rescue the trapped miners. The local administration subsequently sought the services of the Directorate General of Mines Safety (DGMS), although the privately controlled mines of Meghalaya are known to dislike government intervention.
"We were approached six days after the incident occurred. Our team was equipped with tracking canines and life detectors that scan for body of live victims on seismic, acoustic and magnetic principles. No agency or rescue group had entered the badly administered coalmine before we reached the rat-hole mine with 80feet vertical depth and 180feet diagonal depth, which further went down parallel developing a number of rate-hole entry channels and sub channels," an NDRF spokesperson told HT on Saturday.
"The mining at such a place alongside an all-season heavy stream is nothing but life-threatening. Our teams found the situation more demanding because of lack of basic safety structure and system. Mine walls had become loose due to incessant rainfall and no concrete or wood shoring was done inside for mining work. The gushing water made the channel and sub-channels too slushy to operate. Even then, our deep divers and water rescue specialists went down 400ft and found neither live persons nor bodies," the spokesperson added.
Threats such as presence of methane gas and possibility of electric current flowing inside the water-filled mine made the mine unpredictable, forcing the NDRF team to call off the operation. The canine squad, trained to sniff up to a depth of 60ft, failed to detect life forms as did the life detectors that use di-electrophoresis to recognize the electro-magnetic waves produced by the human heart.
Meanwhile, South Garo Hills deputy commissioner in-charge RP Marak said locals were continuing to pump out water from the coal pit for the eighth straight day after the mishap. "The mine is on the verge of collapse," he said, adding that the hopes now rest on the arrival of the DGMS team.