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Return to the Rat Hole
Coal mining has been reopened in the Indian state of Meghalaya, but it isn’t clear that government protections will improve life for workers or help the environment.
Coal miners in the mineral-rich northeastern Indian state of Meghalaya have something to celebrate. Over the summer, the Supreme Court of India passed an order to reopen mining in their state.
A ban, put forward in 2014 over environmental concerns, had “almost marked our graves,” Balious Swer, who until recently served as the president of the Jaintia Coal Miners and Dealers Association, told me in October. “We had to figure out other ways to support our families.” For his part, Swer did manage to pick up government and other contracts during the five-year ban, but he says that it’s the laborers, many of them local Nepalis, who suffered the most. Some resorted to desperate measures, he says, even suicide or selling their children. Corroborating his claims was a sudden—almost quadruple—jump in the 2015 national crime statistics for human trafficking, mostly of minor girls, in the neighboring state of Assam. Until then, children trafficked from Nepal and Bangladesh to work in the mines used to be widely reported.
Still, it isn’t clear that miners’ lives will be much better with the ban lifted. The Supreme Court’s reversal came a mere eight months after a tragic accident in a mine in Ksan, in East Jaintia Hills, claimed the lives of at least 16. They were working in an illegally operating rat-hole mine—a practice involving very narrow tunnels connecting to deeper pits—when water from a nearby stream rushed in. The mine owner, Jrin Chullet, was arrested days later but was released on bail after a few months.
In its judgment, the Supreme Court remarked on the tragedy, noting that it had come despite the order banning illegal mining in the state. It also argued that Meghalaya had around $60 million in unused funds for environmental protection and restoration related to mining. The court hoped that by reopening mining officially—this time under the laws of the central government rather than state edicts—tragedy and waste could be avoided.
In the uneven terrain of Meghalaya, situated more than 6,400 feet above sea level at its highest point, coal has traditionally been mined by digging pits hundreds of meters deep and then cutting horizontally to reach the coal seams.
Under British administration of India’s northeastern frontier, mining was a cottage industry. And even after Meghalaya attained full statehood in 1972, administration of the tiny state came under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees land ownership rights to indigenous communities. Given that the coal-mining land was under private and community ownership, India’s national overseer, Coal India, never regulated mining in Meghalaya as it does elsewhere in the country.
The traditional mining methods, including rat-hole mining, used in the state are extremely labor-intensive. Mechanical cranes came into use only in the last few years to lift extracted coal out of the pit. It is these practices—and the related danger and environmental damage—that had initially led to the mining ban. The ruling was the first time a national judicial authority had weighed in on a state’s mining practices.
Although Swer was initially happy about the recent judgment lifting the ban, he later admitted that it didn’t do much for mine owners because of one caveat: Mine owners in Meghalaya would now be expected to follow the national rules on resource extraction. “We’ll have to apply for a mining lease from the state government,” he noted, “which will put it up with the Ministry of Environment. This will be a first time for us.”
Justine Dkhar, the joint secretary of the Jaintia Coal Mine Owners and Dealers Association, which has actively lobbied the state government on coal, is displeased with the imposition of central mining laws on protected land. “If we have to apply for a mining lease and submit a mining plan, then the time and money spent on the bureaucratic process will far outweigh the production,” he told me in October. “I haven’t understood how the court recognized tribal ownership yet brought in agencies like Coal India Limited to auction our coal.”
Foreign Policy reached out to Vincent Pala, a mine owner and Meghalaya’s representative in the union assembly, but has yet to receive a response to a set of queries. A member of the Jaintia Coal Mine Owners and Dealers Association, Pala is said to own a large portion of the mines in the state.
As of now, the high-wall mining method has only been employed in India in the state of Jharkhand, which is home to 26 percent of India’s coal reserves. And even there, most of the coal is extracted through other methods. A 2019 report from a committee made up of a member from the National Green Tribunal along with officials from the state’s Department of Mines and Geology and the State Level Environment Impact Assessment Authority noted that the high-wall mining method in the state’s West Bokaro coal field has been successful in expanding existing open-cast mines and reaching coal from the seams not accessible from the open-cast method.
And a group of ministers backing the practice concluded in 2008 that the introduction of such modern coal mining technology would bring many benefits, including “higher coal production, power generation from thermal power plant, coal royalties for land owners, employment generation, socio economic development around the mining area and conservation of precious coal for gainful exploration.”
Coal mine owners, on the other hand, are skeptical. Apsharailang Syiem, the secretary of Ka Hima Nongstoin Land Owners, Coal Traders and Producers Association, told me that a few geologists who visited several mining sites in 2016 told him that rat-hole mining would be the best method given the nature of the coal deposits. “If we use heavy machinery in our area, it does not work because the coal seams are not very thick. Plus, it will have a more adverse effect on the environment.” That may be true, but for now, too little is known about Meghalaya’s specific geography to say.
The state government committee does back Syiem up to a certain extent. In particular, it found that the high-wall method could be inappropriate for Meghalaya, since it would involve the cutting of huge trenches which would “cause severe environmental degradation in the area,” the report said. It also pointed out the thinness of the coal seams as another potential problem.
One dissenting voice in the committee came from Shantanu K. Dutta of the Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board, who later pointed out to me that there wasn’t much scope for mechanization in the rat-hole or box-cutting method. He still believes that high-wall mining would be more cost effective given the uncertainty in the traditional methods. “The data on the coal seam thickness is not even available for all the areas, so it’s all trial and error,” he added.
O.P. Singh, a professor at the North-Eastern Hills University in Shillong, said that with the limited data available on Meghalaya, it’s hard to predict the environmental impact of mechanized mining. “A lot of study needs to be done on the geology before one can conclude if high-wall mining can be done,” he told me. A report he authored in 2005, which became the basis for the mining ban, showed that acid draining from mines has been the greatest cause of pollution of rivers in and around the mining areas.
Singh’s research has attributed further problems to “indiscriminate and unscientific mining and absence of post mining treatment and management of mined areas,” which are making “the fragile ecosystems more vulnerable to environmental degradation and leading to large scale changes in land cover/land use changes.”
Still, Hasina Kharbhih, a human-rights activist whose local nonprofit Impulse NGO Network is also a petitioner in an ongoing case brought by the National Green Tribunal, said in October that if the government wants mining to be in the interest of the people in the state, then it will have to consult the public on the framing of the policy. “In the past, the government hired Tata consultancy to help them navigate a policy that would give them directives on how scientific mining can take place. But this report was never made public,” she said.
Since 2008, Impulse NGO Network has been extensively involved in research on labor violations in coal mining areas in Meghalaya, where it claimed that more 70,000 laborers working in the mines were minors. They were mostly unaccompanied in deep coal pits, financially exploited, and abused through long working hours.
B.P. Katakey, a former judge in Gauhati High Court who until recently led a three-member committee tasked by India’s National Green Tribunal last year to help with environmental restoration near coal mines, believes that mining is still feasible so long as environmental norms and safety measures are followed. “In some areas, however, the government should impose a ban on mining activities, particularly near the water bodies. Through satellite images, we have already identified the mines that are near water streams or on water beds,” he said.
“Importantly,” he added, “a scientific approach should be taken to ensure the extracted coal does not spill over to other areas, polluting the river and soil.” In other words, he supports the repeal of the ban and nationalizing oversight of Meghalaya’s mines. In December, Katakey tendered his resignation from the committee, citing “personal reasons.” However, sources told a local daily that it came after continued resistance from the state government to cooperate with the committee.
Of course, the jury is still out on whether mechanized mining or traditional methods—paired with greater environmental precautions—would be better for Meghalaya. But what is clear is that coal is the main source of revenue for the state. At an assembly meeting last year, Chief Minister Conrad Sangma said the loss of revenue from the ban had cost the state a royalty of 700 crore rupees (more than $90 million) a year.
Even then, audit reports show, mining never stopped being a major source of revenue. Much of it just went off the books. Given that reality, experts and activists remain skeptical that the government’s latest efforts will lead to real reformative change in mining practices. But change is needed. As Kharbhih said, in mining areas, soil and water quality has deteriorated thanks to years of unscientific extraction. Without more focus on restoration, “a mining policy poses more danger.”