Meghalaya mine owner arrested, hope dips for survival of 13 trapped miners
Meghalaya police have arrested the owner of the illegal coal mine in the state’s East Jaintia Hills district where 13 miners, trapped due to flooding on Thursday, are yet to be located and rescued.
Despite a four-year-old ban on mining by the National Green Tribunal, mining activity was underway at the site located in Ksan village near Lytein River in the district. On Thursday, the mine collapsed, trapping the 13 people.
District police chief Silvester Nongtyngnger said on Thursday that he believed the mine to be an old one on which the illegal activity resumed around three-four days earlier. 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.
Late on Friday night, police arrested Jrin Chullet aka. Krip Chullet, owner of the mine after a raid his home village of Norwan. One of his accomplices James Sukhlain however is absconding and a manhunt has been launched to track him and others down, Meghalaya deputy inspector general of police in-charge Eastern Range, A. R. Mawthoh told Hindustan Times.
A case has been registered against the coal mine owner in Saipung police station under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act and the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act.
Meanwhile, concerted rescue efforts by the State Disaster Response Force (SDRF), and police, supported by personnel of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), were so far not successful. According to sources, the task is proving to be onerous as entering and navigating the labyrinth of subterranean caves made by rat-hole mining is difficult.
Speaking to Hindustan Times, additional chief secretary Peter W Ingty, who looks after revenue and disaster management, admitted that things didn’t look bright. “Rescue efforts are still underway but unfortunately no breakthrough has been made so far. However, the NDRF team informed me a while ago that they have brought more state of the art equipment which includes sonar sensors to help the rescue teams in their job,” he said.
The deputy commissioner or the district police chief could not be reached for more updates as both are supervising ongoing rescue efforts at the site which is remotely located.
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 mastermind of the November 8 attack was formally named as Nidamon Chullet by Sangma in her deposition before the inquiring magistrate.