MAC: Mines and Communities

Meghalaya mine murders - leading editor remonstrates

Published by MAC on 2019-01-26

The editor of the Shillong Times here provides his own analysis of what caused the Meghalaya mining disaster last December - one which cost the lives of some 15 workers.

In this important article he not only cites racism (against muslims) as a factor, but claims that the state has used the Indian constution, intended to protect tribal peoples, to justify its very opposite.

The state has, she says "...left thousands of abandoned mines as human graves". It "does not insist that [mine owners] 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".

In conclusion:

"There is complete disregard for corporate social responsibility because the mines are privately owned by the tribals. How long can the Central government and the highest court of the land allow this to carry on in one part of the country when strict laws are applied elsewhere?"

A tragedy that was long in the making

Patricia Mukhim

Opinion

The Hindu

25 January 2019

Illegal rat-hole mining in Meghalaya persists despite ruinous effects on
the environment

The efforts to reach the 15 miners trapped in an illegal coal mine in the
East Jaintia hills of Meghalaya since December 13 continue, but they began
belatedly and have faced many problems.

Doomed from the beginning

First, 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. Second, it was unfortunate that the district
administration assumed the miners to be dead on the very day of the
tragedy. This assumption was evident in the letter written to the National
Disaster Response Force. It was only after a Delhi-based lawyer, Aditya N.
Prasad, represented by senior Supreme Court advocate Anand Grover and his
team of human rights lawyers presented their suggestions to the court that
the Meghalaya government got different actors to the accident site. Mr.
Prasad has never visited Meghalaya. When asked why he is the petitioner on
behalf of the miners, he simply said: “They are fellow Indians and my
brethren.” That someone based in Delhi should have the empathy lacking in
the people and the government shows that humanity is a dying virtue.

Mr. Prasad has done everything possible to put things together to assist
the rescue mission. But despite his initiative, things were delayed. The
distance of the mine, for one, was a major hindrance. Then there are other
issues that need to be highlighted. The trapped miners were being racially
profiled in the minds of the people and the state. Of the 15 miners, only
three were locals from the nearby village of Lumthari. The rest were
Muslims from Garo Hills, Meghalaya, and Bodoland, Assam. Their
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, apart from pumping out the
water, is to stop further flow of water into it. This requires a
hydrologist to scientifically map out the area from where water entered
the mine. Sudhir Kumar, a hydrologist from the National Institute of
Hydrology, Roorkee, arrived only two weeks after the disaster. So did the
divers from the Indian Navy and the 100 HP water pumps from Kirloskar
Brothers. The remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) from Planys in
Chennai came three weeks later. 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. One shudders to think what the
response would be if there was a massive earthquake in the Northeast,
which is listed as Zone 5 on the seismic scale.

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 with
gusto in the 1980s, has poisoned three rivers in the Jaintia hills: the
Myntdu, Lunar and Lukha. Scientists from the North-Eastern Hill University
have found that these rivers have very high acidic levels. Reports from
other agencies suggest that 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 in the
areas investigated, the reports added.

The coal mine owners have been hiring the best legal brains to argue for
them in the highest court of the land. They say that rat-hole mining
should continue because no other form of mining is viable (which means
that their profit margins would reduce if other forms of mining were to
take place). They argue that the NGT ban should be lifted. They claim that
coal mining provides livelihoods for many, but at what cost?

The fault-lines

The tribes of Meghalaya are divided on the issue of rat-hole mining. The
fault-lines are clear. 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. To add to these
woes, cement companies also release their effluents into the rivers. So we
now have a deadly cocktail of pollutants being released into the
environment. 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.

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 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? Why is the
Sixth Schedule unable to protect the forests and rivers that are common
property resources? Acid mine drainage has rendered even agricultural land
non-productive. Mine owners do not care about environmental degradation.

Abandoning responsibility

The cement giant, Lafarge, mines limestone from Meghalaya’s East Khasi
Hills district and transports it to Chhatak in Bangladesh via conveyor
belts. The Supreme Court placed a heavy penalty on Lafarge and asked it to
strictly implement environmental laws apart from generating livelihoods
for people residing within 50 km of the mining areas. In the case of coal
mine owners, there are no such strictures.

They 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. How long can the Central government and the highest court of
the land allow this to carry on in one part of the country when strict
laws are applied elsewhere?

Patricia Mukhim is Editor, The Shillong Times

 

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