13 believed dead in Meghalaya illegal mine accident
Meghalaya has nearly 640 million tonnes of coal reserves. Mining of coal by hand has been going on in Meghalaya for over 150 years, mostly for local use. Large-scale illegal and indiscriminate mining of the coal by private landowners and the local community started nearly three decades ago.Updated: Dec 13, 2018 23:57 IST
Thirteen miners were feared dead after an illegal coal mine they were digging collapsed on them in Meghalaya’s coal-rich East Jaintia Hills, an area where illegal mining is rife and a National Green Tribunal ban on such activities has been in place for four years.
District police chief Silvester Nongtyngnger said he had information that 13 people, including three residents of Lumthari village, were trapped inside a mine at Ksan near Lyteiñ River under Saipung police station.
Nongtyngnger added that he believed the mine to be an old one on which the illegal activity resumed around three-four days back. People familiar with the matter said the miners may have accidentally breached another old (and illegal) coal mine filled with water, in turn flooding the mine on which they were working.
The police chief added that the flooding was making it impossible to recover the bodies. “The water is being pumped out with the help of a generator and is in progress,” he said, adding that local villagers acquainted with the terrain were helping in the rescue work.
Police have registered a case against the mine owner, whose identity is yet to be established.
Meghalaya has nearly 640 million tonnes of coal reserves. Mining of coal by hand has been going on in Meghalaya for over 150 years, mostly for local use. Large-scale illegal and indiscriminate mining of the coal by private landowners and the local community started nearly three decades ago. Most of these mines employ minors, some from neighbouring states and Nepal as well; the miners work many metres underground in unsafe conditions, mining coal with their bare hands.
The NGT’s ban four years ago seems to have had little effect.
Last week, satellite images taken by the North East Space Application Centre (NESAC) located here showing mining activity still underway were submitted before the NGT.
“There’s complicity in what’s going on among bureaucrats, coal mafia, police and politicians. How does one explain mining going on despite the NGT ban?” asked Patricia Mukhim, editor of The Shillong Times.
This isn’t the first accident involving an illegal mine in the state. In February 2014, four miners were killed when the walls of an illegal mine collapsed in Garo Hills. In December 2013, five miners died when the cable of the contraption which was carrying them down to an illegal mine in Jaintia Hills broke. In July 2012, 15 miners drowned in an illegal mine in Garo Hills when an underground stream flowing near the mine flooded it.
Last month, two activists, Agnes Kharsiing and Amita Sangma, were attacked while they were recording instances of transport of coal from illegal coal mines in the state.
The people familiar with the matter added that Thursday’s accident involved labourers from the Garo Hills region of the state.
At the time the NGT ban was imposed, nearly 6 million tonnes of coal were being extracted annually from Meghalaya’s illegal mines.
The ban had rendered thousands of people jobless and affected local businesses.
Prior to the assembly elections in Meghalaya in February, the BJP promised to lift the ban within six months if it was voted to power. The party is a minor partner in the National Peoples’ Party-led government in the state. “What we need is a comprehensive mining policy with adequate environmental safeguards and improved work conditions for miners. That will ensure people are held accountable when any such incident occurs in the future,” said Mukhim.