Relevance: GS Paper III
Why has this issue cropped up?
The efforts to reach the 15 miners trapped in an illegal coal mine in the East Jaintia hills of Meghalaya since December 13 continue.
Issues with illegal coal mining in Meghalaya
- The Meghalaya government has no idea what happens inside these rat-hole mines, which are barely 2 ft wide, since mining is a private activity.
- Despite the National Green Tribunal ban of April 2014, mining continues in the State.
Was the recent disaster managed well?
- The district administration assumed the miners to be dead on the very day of the tragedy.
- The socio-economic profile also worked against them. They were the poorest of the poor who took a huge risk to enter a mine and dig for coal without any safety gear.
- When a mine is flooded, the immediate response is to stop further flow of water into it. This requires a hydrologist. In this case, a hydrologist arrived only two weeks after the disaster. So did the divers from the Indian Navy and the 100 HP water pumps.So did the geologists from Hyderabad.
- All these delays happened because there was no one person or agency to coordinate the rescue mission. This shows the kind of disaster preparedness we have in our country.
Questions that arise
There are many questions that arise with respect to rat-hole mining of coal.
- One, why does the state allow this archaic mining system, which has complete disregard for human life and safety?
- And two, why is Meghalaya exempted from national mining laws?
- Rat-hole mining, which started in the 1980s, has poisoned three rivers in the Jaintia hills: the Myntdu, Lunar and Lukha.
- These rivers have very high acidic levels. pH of the water and sulphate and iron concentrations indicate significant deterioration of the rivers.
- Acid mine drainage from abandoned mines was a major cause for water pollution.
- Acid mine drainage has rendered even agricultural land non-productive.
Arguments given for coal mining
- The coal mine owners say that rat-hole mining should continue because no other form of mining is viable.
- They claim that coal mining provides livelihoods for many.
- The other troubling factor is that coal mine owners are insisting that since Meghalaya is a State under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, national mining laws should be exempted here.
The scale of the coal mining problem
- The scale of the problem is clear in this one fact: there are 3,923 coal mines in one district with a geographical area of 2126 sq. km.
- Coal mine owners have left thousands of abandoned mines as human graves. The State does not insist that they reclaim and afforest those mines.
- In 40 years of mining and profiteering, the mine owners have till date not constructed a single hospital or even a school. There is complete disregard for corporate social responsibility because the mines are privately owned by the tribals.
What people of Meghalaya want?
- The tribes of Meghalaya are divided on the issue of rat-hole mining.
- Those who care for the environment and for a future for their children and grandchildren have been clamouring for an end to the practice of rat-hole mining and reckless limestone mining.
- On the other hand, the mining elite have mobilised forces to demonise environmental activists. A community of just over a million is now fragmented.
Should Meghalaya be exempted of national laws?
The Sixth Schedule was enacted to protect the community rights of tribals from any form of exploitation of their land and resources. How can it now be used as an instrument to protect an activity that is a private enterprise, that is inhuman, and that violates Article 21 of the Constitution?
The Central government and the highest court of the land should not allow this to carry on in one part of the country when strict laws are applied elsewhere.