Meghalaya: The Depth of A Tragedy

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They wait for a miracle to save the workers trapped in a coal mine in Meghalaya

IT TAKES FIVE HOURS from Shillong to reach the coal-laden hills of East Jaintia Hills. First you breeze through the green, rolling hills, the ones that vindicate Meghalaya’s moniker as ‘Scotland of the East’. Halfway though, the hills start balding. The tar-road devolves into a dirt-track and then a rock-carpet. At the last haul, you plod through thin forests and wade into a cool blue stream curling around the cliffs. That’s how you find Ksan coal mine at Lumthari, where 15 workers have been trapped for the past month in a ‘rathole’ 113 metres underground. It’s the only way.

Coal mining is illegal in Meghalaya. The National Green Tribunal (NGT), India’s environmental court, banned it in April 2014. It was a result of years of complaints about child labour, lack of safety equipment and administrative oversight, rampant deforestation, and water and soil pollution caused due to its unscientific, unsustainable mining practices. What do we do with the coal already extracted, cried mine-owners. The judiciary sympathised. In the 57 months since the ban, the miners were allowed transportation on nine occasions, totalling 32 months. Not all coal being hauled out was ‘leftover’, though. The disaster at Lumthari on December 13th last year only confirmed it.

Nobody really knows how the Ksan mine got flooded. Sayeb Ali, a migrant labour from Assam, recalled being five feet away from the floor of the mine that morning. “Suddenly,” he said, “I felt a lot of air and then saw water.” As the waters rose to 49 metres, nearly half the depth of the mine, Ali clung on to a rope dangling from the top and managed to keep afloat. He was among the only five who escaped.

The rescue mission that followed was inevitably going to be scrutinised by the bar set by the Thai cave rescue last year. Soon after they learnt about the 12 boys and their football coach stuck inside a flooded cave, the Thailand government had assembled a team of 10,000 people, including cavers and divers from the US and UK. Over a billion litres of water was pumped out as the world breathlessly watched round-the-clock news updates and the 13 people were rescued after 18 days.

The Indian response, however, reeked of administrative lethargy. For two weeks, none of the state-level ministers or politicians showed up. Diving operations were suspended because a crane operator didn’t turn up on Christmas, inter-agency coordination was delayed because the deputy commissioner in charge went on ‘medical leave’ on Boxing Day. Thailand had put 40 dewatering pumps to work to empty the flooded cave; the rescue workers at Lumthari worked with only two for over a week. And yet, a 21-member team from the Odisha fire brigade coming with back-up pumps on December 28th had to wait at the airport for six hours for suitable transport. The disaster reporting by most sections of Indian media was accompanied by righteous indignation, the loudest voices often miles away from ground zero. Their lament: ‘Life is cheap for the Indian poor’.

By the second week of January, most of the national media had returned to their home bases. “They used to be there,” a rescue personnel told me, pointing at an elevated platform overlooking the mine. “They were always looking to grab bytes, always looking for shots inside the mine. It was quite distracting.” Around us, 200 personnel from the Indian Navy, State and National Disaster Rescue Force (SDRF and NDRF), Odisha fire brigade, Coal India and the high-power pump manufacturers Kirloskar Brothers milled about. Many had been put up in wood-and-tarpaulin tents around the mine, earlier used by the resident mine workers. These were dimly-lit, poorly insulated and had barely enough woollens or blankets to survive the freezing nights. On one end, the fire brigade personnel from Odisha were cutting bamboo and tying them together with coir ropes to serve as cots. “The ground gets too cold at night,” one of them explained.

“We’re still in phase one of the rescue operation,” said Reginald Susngi, East Jaintia Hills district public relations officer. The main problem, he explained, was that there was no blueprint of the mines. The strategy was devised from interacting with locals and experts from the water resources department and was largely based on educated guesses. One, a lot of the coal mines in the region are interconnected. Two, the water flooding the mine is from the river flowing in the vicinity.

“We are focusing on dewatering the main shaft and the ones in its immediate vicinity,” he added. “Six pumps are working in three mines and the one where the people are trapped. We’ve been trying but not successfully.” Every day, the pumps drain hundreds and thousands of litres of water, reducing the water levels in the main shaft by up to two metres. By the time operations resume the following day, the water level goes back up. Most of the pumps at disposal can’t work round-the-clock. They lack the necessary load-carrying capacity.

Over 10 million litres of water have been pumped out so far. Water levels have reduced by less than six inches.

When I visited the Ksan mine on January 8th, it was a day of snags. The Indian Navy’s Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) had got stuck underwater inside the mine. The two high-power pumps of Kirloskar Brothers, touted as the panacea of all troubles, had stopped working after a few minutes. The 200-member team seemed bloated, directionless and in no hurry. Some caught up with their friends on the phone, others pointedly lurked in the frame of a visiting TV crew’s shoot, asking excitedly when it would be aired. When the diesel dewatering pumps needed to be refilled, a seemingly three-member job, a dozen personnel from Odisha headed to the mine. Indian Navy divers too were helpless—they couldn’t dive beyond 27 metres, but the water levels far exceeded their capacity.

How did six de-watering pumps square with a 200-member team? Shouldn’t the skilled manpower be backed up by the latest, most efficient technology? Already, the families of the trapped miners had said they only hoped for the bodies to be re11turned. “The administration is doing the best with the resources available,” said Susngi.

Before leaving, I met Sukanta Sethi, chief fire officer of the Odisha contingent. “How long will this go on for?” I asked.

“We can’t really say,” he said.

“What’s your instinct?”

“I have a feeling this will be over soon,” he smiled encouragingly. “I’m sure we’ll find the bodies.”

A death sentence. The only explanation needed for the lack of urgency. It wasn’t a rescue mission anymore. It was a recovery operation.

“Water levels will go down only if all the mines are de-watered at the same time. If the Supreme Court lifts the ban, the owners will do it themselves. The way the pumping operations are going on, the mines won’t be empty for years” - Balios Swer president of Jaintia Coal Miners and Dealers Association

RATHOLE MINING’ HAS been in operation ever since Meghalaya was part of the British Empire. It’s unique form is necessitated by the thin coal seams found in the hills across the state. Unlike the open-cast mining found in Jharkhand or Odisha, wherein hills are turned into craters during extraction, such mining involves digging into the sides of a hill called ‘side- cutting’, or straight inside the hill—called ‘box-cutting’—until you hit coal. The latter ends with a series of less-than-a-metre wide horizontal tunnels inside the mine, called ‘ratholes’.

The lack of regulated mining in Meghalaya is just as much the fault of the administration as a misinterpretation of the Constitution. Meghalaya falls under the sixth schedule, which aims to protect tribal rights over land. Many locals understand it to mean they own the land along with the natural resources found within. In the absence of a clear mining policy by the state government, land-owners in Meghalaya began rampant exploitation of its natural resources like coal and limestone. Jaintia Hills in the east and Khasi Hills in the centre, known for being rich in coal, were the worst-hit.

Today, the number of coal mines in East Jaintia Hills is estimated to be over 100,000. Before the NGT ban in 2014, they contributed an annual revenue of Rs 700 crore. A ‘Citizens Report’ by Meghalaya- based civil society groups estimates that at least a dozen politicians in the state own coal mines or have relatives who do. Such mine- owners’ riches are the stuff of folklore. A manager of a cement factory in East Jaintia Hills told me that the miners were so prosperous that they stored their wealth in Sintex tanks. A local journalist recalled receiving multiple calls after Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 bills were demonetised in November 2016, enquiring if miners were hiring people to count cash and deposit them in banks.

It is difficult to verify these claims. What is evident is the sharp contrast in living conditions of the coal barons and others in East Jaintia Hills. While most tribal residents in the villages live in tin- roofed brick and bamboo huts, the coal barons in Khliehriat, the administrative centre of East Jaintia Hills, live in elegant mansions, many with swimming pools, basketball courts and several SUVs. Angela Rangad, one of the authors of the Citizens Report, estimates 76 per cent of the tribals—nearly 1.5 million—in Meghalaya are landless. The total number of mine owners in Meghalaya is unclear, but a CAG report in 2017 found 3,394 in East and West Jaintia Hills’ districts, less than 1 per cent of the resident population.

On January 9th, the Jaintia Coal Miners and Dealers Association held a public meet in a football ground in East Jaintia Hills to press the government to legalise coal mining. Around 30 mine- owners and one ex-MLA—all men—sat on the stage, taking turns to emphasise the importance of mining. An audience of around 500, munching on betelnut and pineapples sold by women with wicker baskets, shielding themselves from the winter sun with shawls and umbrellas, listened patiently.

One coal mine benefits at least 100 people, the speakers said. The mining ban thus hollows out the local economy. Already, it has emptied the classrooms, shuttered the churches and decimated the purchasing power of the locals. Despite repeated pleas, the state government hadn’t formulated a mining policy. While the NGT imposed a fresh Rs 100 crore fine on Meghalaya for failing to check illegal mining, a Rs 500 crore penalty the coal barons paid as ‘Environment Restoration Fund’ in 2014 still lies unused. “And then there’s the media,” said an impassioned speaker. “Even the smallest of things like detention of trucks or labourers, and they make headlines.” The Association resolved to wait for a Supreme Court hearing on further extension of transportation of ‘leftover’ coal. If not, said one, “We’ll take to the streets until they give in.”

“Coal mining in Meghalaya used to be a cottage industry,” Balios Swer, president of the Association, told me after the meet. “This is a cold place, so people use coal in winters to keep warm. But in the past 35-40 years, its use increased across the country.” Balios, whose mother owns three mines, entered the business in 1997. Since then, he’s seen a steady rise in mining around Jaintia Hills. When the coal harvest was rich, he would make up to Rs 1 crore a year. The salary of a rathole worker, on the other hand, is between Rs 800 to Rs 2,000 a day. The mining ban in 2014 brought most of their fortunes to a standstill, he claims, before conceding that it didn’t stop a rogue few.

Swer rejects allegations of child labour, of lack of safety equipment, or of over three hundred deaths in the ratholes between 2007-2014, as estimated by Impulse NGO Network, a Shillong- based civil society group. “These NGOs don’t have any other work. They do it just to get money.” He also rejects the existence of a coal mafia that reportedly intimidates tribals into parting with their land. “It takes between Rs 50 lakh and 1.5 crore to start the mine. When people don’t have money, we do it in partnership. One puts in the money to explore; both split the earnings after mining.”

Ordinarily, there are no surveys or scientific studies before exploration begins. “It’s like gambling,” he says. “By experience, we know there’s coal here. We just don’t know where exactly or how deep it is.” As the mine owners mostly rely on acquired intelligence on the area’s topography, there are no blueprints of the Ksan mine. This, he says, has resulted in a rescue strategy that’s deeply flawed.

“Hundreds of mines in that area are interconnected,” says Swer. “I told them, the water levels will go down only if all of them are dewatered at the same time. If the Supreme Court lifts the ban, the owners will do it themselves. It will take them only a week. But the way the pumping operations are going on, the mines won’t be empty for years.”

ON SUNGTA ROAD in East Jaintia Hills, piles of coal are stacked on both sides of the track. Every day, hundreds of trucks loaded with this coal leave East Jaintia for Assam, Bangladesh and West Bengal for processing. The owners insist these are ‘leftovers’ from the time of NGT’s ban, but when retired judge BP Katakey visited the area last year as part of an NGT fact-finding panel, he said that large quantities seemed freshly mined. “Even the cranes used for extraction were newly greased and functional four years after the ban. Prima facie, illegal activities were on,” he said.

“Illegal mining is an open secret,” said Rakesh Singh, a migrant from Bihar working at a depot for the past 10 years. “The NGT ban has made a difference—we’ve been getting work for only a few months a year. But whenever there’s a window opened for transportation, mining begins afresh.” Most of the loaders and mine workers in Meghalaya are migrants like Singh, often hailing from poor families in Bihar, Assam and Nepal. They have little leverage in case of accidents and are forever at the mercy of their employers for their wages. The Ksan mine, it is believed, made news because among those trapped were locals from East Jaintia, not just migrants.

The stakes, thus, are high. In November last year, a mob of 25-30 workers at a coal depot in East Jaintia surrounded activist Agnes Kharshiing after spotting her click photographs of trucks carrying illegally mined coal. They dragged her out of her car and thrashed her and her friend Amita Sangma with stones and wooden sticks for 10 minutes. Agnes spent a month in hospital, recovering from head, face and limb injuries and broken ribs. “It was a first,” she recalls. “When I’d clicked such photographs in other parts of Meghalaya, people usually ran away. This time, they attacked.”

The attack signified the impunity and political patronage enjoyed by the coal mafia, says Agnes. Among her attackers was Nidamon Chullet, East Jaintia leader of the ruling National People’s Party (NPP). There have been instances of honest police officers transferred for acting against illegal coal mining. “This attack doesn’t just affect me, but everyone who works against illegal miners. At this rate, even the judges and journalists can’t write against them. It will be terrorism.”

On January 15th, the Supreme Court rejected the plea to allow coal barons some more time to transport coal out of Meghalaya. "Despite several extensions, you are seeking more time," the court said. "This means illegal mining is still going on." It also lashed out against the Meghalaya government for poor enforcement of the ban; a senior home department official had earlier claimed that the inadequate number of police personnel and the difficult terrain made their job difficult. “If any steps were being taken to stop illegal mining, these incidents would not be happening,” the court said.

It’s been over a month since the Ksan mine disaster, now dubbed among the country’s longest ‘rescue missions’. On 15th January, NDTV quoted unnamed sources within the state government saying the operation might be called off soon if there was no indication of the status of the trapped men. This might just have been the case, say activists, if there wasn’t as much scrutiny. Only last week, the state government had told the Supreme Court that it hoped for little beyond a ‘miracle’. “Keep trying,” they were told. “Miracles do happen.”