As the 15 miners in Meghalaya who were trapped in a rat-hole mine in Meghalaya remained untraceable, two more men were reported dead after another illegal coal mine collapsed in the East Jaintia Hills, an official reported on Sunday.
The latest accident at Mooknor, Jalyiah village, is feared to have resulted from boulders hitting the miners as they tried to extract coal. It was reported after local Philip Bareh filed an official missing persons report for his nephew Elad Bareh (26) on Friday. “A search was conducted and his body was found in front of a ‘rat-hole’ coal mine. When we further checked inside the narrow mine, another body was found. The second man was identified as Monoj Basumatry,” Sylvester Nongtnger, district police chief, told IANS.
Efforts to trace the owner of the illegal mine are underway, he added.
The latest accident has turned up the pressure and spotlight on Meghalaya government for condoning illegal mining operations that were banned in 2013 but continue to be a widespread practice in the mineral-rich state. The National Green Tribunal which had imposed the ban, on Saturday imposed a fine of Rs 100 crore on the state government for failing to curb illegal mining despite innumerable warnings.
The report submitted before the NGT bench on January 2 stated that most of the 24,000 mines in the north-eastern state were operating without a lease or licence. Senior advocate Raj Panjawani said that the amount of the fine has to be deposited with the Central Pollution Control Board within two months.
What about the previous mishap?
Meanwhile, rescue operations for the 15 miners who have been trapped since December have hit a snag, according to local authorities. In the last week of 2018, Chief Minister Conrad Sangma promised not to give up, while acknowledging the huge logistical challenge posed by rising waters and lack of equipment.
“Pumping machines of Kirloskar and CIL have been stopped for the time being because of some technical problem. The pumps will be restored soon,” said rescue operations spokesperson, Reginald Susngi. Odisha firefighters continue to drain out water from the two abandoned coal mines, he added.
How did they get trapped?
The 15 labourers reported missing in December had entered the rat-hole mine after illegal mining in the area had resumed, and got hedged in it after a recent flood near the Lytein river, PTI reported. CNN reported that the shaft of the 320 feet deep mine had collapsed and flooded, trapping the miners, many of whom are feared dead. An official complaint against the proprietor of the illegal mine has also been registered.
Operations so far
Operations were suspended two weeks after the incident garnered global attention, owing to lack of powerful pumps. The Centre and states like Odisha stepped in to offer the required help to evacuate those trapped, in response. 21 National Disaster Response Force personnel and 10 high-power pumps were sent aboard Indian Air Force transport carrier C-130J Super Hercules to Guwahati from where they, along with other equipment, were airlifted on a chopper to East Jaintia Hills.
The pumps sourced from Coal India mines in Asansol in West Bengal and Dhanbad in Jharkhand, were transported on road to Lumthari village.
A 20-member team from Odisha, led by chief fire officer Sukanta Sethi, also left for Shillong in a special Indian Air Force (IAF) aircraft with more equipment, including high-power pumps.
Last week, the Supreme Court expressed dissatisfaction with the rescue efforts made by the state government. According to Hindustan Times, a request for 10 pumps of 100 HP, survey teams to detect seepage, and other assistance from state-owned Coal India was made by the district administration in a letter to the state government on December 20, but the corporation received the communication only on December 26. “We are running out of time,” CM Sangma had said on December 22, announcing interim relief of Rs 1 lakh for dependents and survivors of trapped miners.
As the miners remain trapped in the rat-hole mine in Ksan village in the East Jaintia Hills district, Sangma on Thursday informed that rescue operations have taken a backseat due to treacherous terrain and logistical unpreparedness. He said, “A whole river is flowing into the particular mine, which is 200-300 feet below. The tunnel is lower and horizontal. This location is 40-50 kilometres away from the main road. We need 30 high power pumps.”
Last month, the National Disaster Management Force (NDRF) had failed to enter the narrow mine as water level inside it rose to 70 feet. “Divers did go toward the tunnel but it is a difficult situation. We are in touch with organisations that are trying to help. Rescue operations are still on, we are not losing hope. Every life is important but important to look at the situation here,” Sangma had said. Water is still seeping in from an abandoned mine and a nearby river.
World-class pump manufacturing company Kirloskar Brothers Limited had tweeted, “We are deeply concerned about the trapped miners in Meghalaya and are ready to help in whichever way possible. We are in touch with the officials of the Govt. of Meghalaya to offer our assistance in this regard. We hope all miners are rescued safely.”
The team that had been trying to rescue the trapped miners reported a foul smell earlier this week, suggesting that some of the miners may have died while their families continue to pray for a miracle.
Political tussle has been unleashed
The ruling NPP-BJP government in the state has long since faced criticism over illegal mining, with critics claiming the government has a lot to answer for, especially for letting private profiteering take precedence over public health, ecology and human cost.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi attacked Prime Minister Narendra Modi last month, over the centre’s lackadaisical approach to the miners’ plight, saying, “Fifteen miners have been struggling for air in a flooded coal mine for two weeks. Meanwhile, PM struts about on Bogibeel Bridge posing for cameras. His government refuses to organise high-pressure pumps for the rescue.”
Grassroots leader and Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani tweeted, “Miners, manual scavengers and factory workers suffer the most in d[the] world. In India, ppl[people] give a damn to their plight. Day & night, they pour out their blood and sweat for all of us bt[but] who cares about them. Will they ever get a liveable society, ever ever?”
Meanwhile, CM Sangma dismissed such efforts at politicising the issue, calling for regulating mining in the state citing similar tragedies that had occurred in the past due to unsafe mining activities.
History of rat-hole mining
This is not the first instance of such an accident, as illegal mining carried out by private landowners and the local community is widespread, even though the National Green Tribunal had banned this method of unscientific and unsafe coal mining in 2014.
The interim ban was introduced after environmental activists argued that this form of mining was responsible for severe water pollution. But rat-hole mines are still commonplace in the north-eastern state, as they can be dug up by inexperienced or unskilled locals, even by children.
This form of mining is extremely dangerous as the coal is extracted from narrow, horizontal seams, which often lead to accidents. Practised mostly in the northeastern states, it involves miners breaking the rocks with manual tools and carrying the material out in baskets or buckets.
At least 15 miners were killed after they were trapped inside a flooded rat-hole mine near the Nangalbibra area in South Garo Hills, Meghalaya, in 2012. Their bodies were never recovered, officials said.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius
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