Illegal coal mining: Why Meghalaya struggles to prevent unlawful practice despite repeated tragedies

Even though the government of Meghalaya has initiated the process of coal mining in a legalised manner after an order from the Supreme Court of India almost two years ago, the recent case of five miners getting trapped in a rat-hole mine in East Jaintia Hills district is indicative of the fact that the state has a long way to go before it can end illegal coal mining.

Since 2014, the state had been facing a ban on rat-hole mining (which is the primarily practiced mining technique), imposed by the National Green Tribunal till 2019. A sum of Rs 100 crore was also slapped on the Meghalaya government as a fine for not being able to halt illegal coal mining.

However, the five-year NGT ban witnessed no recess of discreet coal mining inside deep forests mostly in the districts of West Jaintia Hills, East Jaintia Hills and West Khasi Hills. Rapid deforestation, mining without scientific methods, pollution of water, illegal transportation of extracted coal and attacks on activists by coal mafias kept hitting headlines.

The 2018 coal mining accident shook the world, when 19 miners who went inside an illegal rat-hole mine in East Jaintia Hills never came out alive (except an exceptionally lucky one from Assam). That’s when the government of Meghalaya knocked on the door of the Supreme Court for a revision of the NGT ban in the state for legalising coal mining. The apex court in June 2019 passed an order to reopen mining in the state eight months after the tragic accident.

The Supreme Court hoped that legalised mining would help to curb the menace of illegally carried ones, would save lives of miners through a scientific and safe mining method and would protect the degrading ecology and environment.

However, the Meghalaya government revealed in the state Assembly that 250 cases from March 2019 to February 2020 have been registered against illegal coal mining and transportation.

Tragedy in a rat hole

Since the 1980s, rat-hole mining is the primarily practiced mining technique in Meghalaya in which deep vertical shafts with narrow horizontal tunnels of 3 to 4 feet diameter are dug and miners are sent down to extract coal till 100 to 150 metre and in some case even more than that. This process mostly involves children because of their small body frame. Since the coal seams are very thin in Meghalaya, rat-hole mining is considered to be an economically viable method of coal extraction rather than removal of rocks from hilly terrains and putting up pillars inside the mine to prevent collapse like open cast mining.

According to Energy Education, "A coal seam is a dark brown or black banded deposit of coal that is visible within layers of rock. These seams are located underground and can be mined using either deep mining or strip mining techniques depending on their proximity to the surface. These seams undergo normal coal formation and serve as a conventional coal resource."

Meghalaya reported its latest accident in a rat-hole mine two weeks ago. On 31 May, Five miners reportedly from Assam and Tripura trapped in a coal mine in East Jaintia Hills District after a dynamite blast led to flooding of water from a nearby water source. The rescue operation to find the miners is still going on.

In January, another six miners from Assam died in a coal mine after they fell 150 feet deep inside.

On 13 December, 2018, Meghalaya recorded one of the biggest coal mine tragedies when at least miners died in an illegal coal mine due to flooding from a nearby river in East Jaintia Hills. The rescue effort to bring the remains of the body of the coal miners lasted till March 2019.

However, activists closely working towards eradicating illegal mining in the state claim that the number of tragedies that occur in coal mines is much higher than what official records show.

Agnes Kharshiiing, an environment and human rights activist from Meghalaya said, “Such accidents come to light because of the high tolls. The government cannot hide such big tragedies from the media and people. But there are many instances where coal miners lose lives in illegal coal mines and such deaths are neither reported nor acknowledged. A few days ago I have got information about the death of a coal labourer in a mine. I am awaiting more details on this.”

The 21-year-old Siswifor Dkhar, a coal miner from Musniang village of East Jaintia Hills District, lost one of his feet while working in a coal mine in May 2019.

Siswifor Dkhar lost hid foot during a coal mining accident in Meghalaya. Image procured by Syeda Ambia Zahan

“In my village, 30 to 40 youths are engaged in mining and that’s the only thing they know which would get them some money. Coal is much more profitable. The youths get Rs 500-800 for a shift,” Dkhar said.

He is yet to purchase an artificial limb as he is waiting to receive a major part of the government compensation. The Meghalaya government announced Rs 5 lakh for Dkhar after the accident.

“Till now I have got Rs 2 lakh as compensation in four installments. If I got the full compensation I could have been able to walk again and start a business. But now all the compensation money is gone into providing for the family,” he said.

The miner said he hasn’t seen any government training programme organised in his area on alternative livelihood opportunities.

Dkhar, who is waiting for the help of the government to get an artificial limb, has now opened a poultry firm to support his family as he can no longer work the coal mines.

Manik Ali, a former coal miner from Assam’s Chirang district, lost his brother Monirul Islam in the 2018 accident.  Till the tragedy, coal mining was the main occupation of Ali’s family.

It is no longer so.

“My father has bought agricultural land from the compensation provided by the government. Now we cultivate ridge gourd and groundnut there,” said Ali.

Ali, however, said, though many families in his district left coal mining, still lots and lots of people have joined the dangerous job of coal digging. Coal digging and mining are the same as rat-hole mining involved digging mostly by hand.

“In my village, the boys will still go to Meghalaya for mining at least twice a year,” said Ali.

So why the miners are digging out the black gold risking life despite the fear of legal consequences is the question that needs to be addressed.

Is obtaining a mining license or getting a lease on coal fields too difficult?

Miners feel so!

As per the order of the Supreme Court, the Meghalaya government on 25 March issued a standard operating procedure for grant of Prospecting License and/or Mining Lease for coal in the state for processing applications submitted under the Mineral Concession Rules 1960.

The 15-page notification listed land documents, mining dues clearance certificate, map of the proposed mining site, certificate of Sixth Schedule status, KML files and statutory approvals, non-forest area declaration, an agreement between applicant and landowner among others.

Most importantly, the application for a prospecting license shall be for an area not less than 100 hectares. However, coal in the state is found scattered all across the hills and satellite images show thousands of rat-hole mines in different locations.

Justine Dkhar, the joint secretary of the Jaintia Coal Mine Owners and Dealers Association and a former MLA of Khliehriat in East Jaintia Hills — a site notorious for illegal coal mining — said that the complexity of the bureaucratic process of obtaining a mining license was the reason people were not at all encouraged to go for it.

“The landholding in Meghalaya is such that mining in the state is very difficult as per the MMDR (Mines and Minerals Development and Regulation Act, 1957). Nobody except a few people in Khasi and Garo hills owns that kind of land. In Meghalaya, coalfields are scattered in small segments. Coal is scattered. This makes applying for a license or lease as per the act impossible. In East Jaintia Hills I don’t know how many have applied for it, but I know no one has got a license yet,” Justine said.

He also said that the usage of modern heavy machinery to extract coal unlike other mineral-rich states of India is not possible in Meghalaya because the coal seams are thin.

“The coal seams here are only 1.5 to 3 feet. The high wall mining method is not going to work here and it would lead to more environmental damage,” the former MLA said.

According to Justine, a handful of mine owners who are rich and educated can only understand the process. The smallholders cannot do mining as per MMDR law.

There is no government estimate on the number of rat-hole mines operating in the state. However, an unofficial report says there are about 60,000 such rat-hole mines operating out of East Jaintia Hills district, one of the major coal-producing sites of Meghalaya.

Activists accuse government of hiding information on illegal coal mining

"There is no coal that is lying extracted in Meghalaya," said Agnes Kharshiing, an environmental and human rights activist from the state.

“The coal that was extracted before the ban of NGT has already been illegally transported from the state. You see hundreds of trucks loading coal and moving out of the state every day. And now that it needs to be given out for auction, the government is illegally digging out coal to maintain the estimate,” she said.

In December 2018, coal miners of the state had submitted before the Supreme Court that 1.77 lakh metric tonnes of coal were lying extracted in Meghalaya.

But four months later, the Meghalaya Mining and Geology Department in an affidavit to the apex court claimed that there were 32.57 lakh metric tonnes of coal yet to be exported.

“Show us the extracted coal that the government claims to have been lying in the state. Now that we have advanced technology, use GPS, take out the drones and show the coal. But can you? No! Because you know there is no coal. Everything has been transported out of the state secretly. So you are digging out fresh coal for auction,”  said Kharshiing, the activist who was attacked while she and one of her associates were going to a coal mine to collect info about illegal mining in the year 2019.

The Supreme Court, in July 2019 ordered the disposal of the entire extracted coal stocks lying in various sites of Meghalaya through Coal India Limited.

Moving to alternative livelihood opportunities a tough choice

Discovered by the British in Khasi Hills in the early 19th Century, coal mining in Meghalaya took off commercially soon after it attained statehood in the year 1972. The community-based mining before that – in which villagers extracted coal for household usages slowly got replaced by commercial coal mining through rat holes.

Soon, wealthy traders from the state as well from neighbouring states of Assam, Tripura and West Bengal started acquiring community land from the villagers.

The 2014 ban of rat-hole mining, which is the most common practice of digging out coal in Meghalaya, didn't prove effective to stop the practice because livelihood options in the coal mining areas are limited.

Aiban BS Swer, director of Meghalaya Basin Development Authority (MBDA), a government body set up in 2012 to provide multi-livelihood opportunities in rural areas, said that the department has taken up several projects with the support of World Bank, International Fund For Agricultural Development (IFAD) and Japan International Corporation Agency (JICA), in terms of providing livelihood to youths engaged in illegal coal mining.

“Through the Meghalaya Livelihood and Access to Market Projects (MEGHA-LAMP) launched in 2015, the government of Meghalaya is trying to create livelihood opportunities adapted to the hill environment and to the effects of climate change,” Swer said.

In another project called Meghalaya Community-Led Landscape Management Project (MCLLMP) the authority is aiming at strengthening rural communities and traditional institutions so they can take charge of their natural resources by implementing community-led sustainable community natural resource management plans in a systematic manner.

“Through these projects, the youths of rural areas who are engaged in mining are being given opportunities to opt for plantation of oil-producing plants like lemongrass and aromatic plants among others,” he said.

Swer also said that the locations where coal was being mined discreetly were in different areas and in high altitudes and very remotely placed and MBDA was trying to reach out to the miners with training programmes on skill development to provide them alternative opportunities.

On the other hand, many believe that it is very hard for the government to convince someone to leave mining and take up agricultural and related activities because the former is way more profitable.

“Once a site is used for coal mining, it cannot be revived again for agriculture or other allied activities. Coal mining is much more profitable than agriculture. We tried to impart some kind of skill development training in the past but it was not very fruitful. Youths are not interested and it is difficult to convince them," said a former officer, who until recently served in the Meghalaya Skill Development Society.

He also said that as the majority of the coal miners are from outside the state, imparting training to them by the Meghalaya government is difficult.

However, Meghalaya environment activist Angela Rangad said that the notion of coal providing livelihood to youths in Meghalaya was a myth and only a handful of coal mine owners are accumulating wealth through illegal mining.

“Mining has actually destroyed the livelihood that existed. The miners captured state power and facilitated illegal mining. There is poverty among the indigenous people from mining sites and they are migrating out. Illegal mining has dispossessed people from community land,” said Rangad.