Meghalaya’s mining quandary: No rat-hole mine is environmentally sound and safe, ban it forever

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January 30, 2019 12:20 AM

There is no such thing as environmentally sound and safe rat-hole coal mining and hence this primitive practice must be banned forever.

To bolster the above falsehood, another myth was perpetrated—that the coal mines in Meghalaya were never nationalised.

Anyone who has seen a rat-hole coal mine up-close would have known that the chances of survival of the 15 miners trapped in a mine at Ksan in Meghalaya’s East Jaintia Hills was slim once the mine was flooded. I have been inside one of these mines and can tell you that it is beyond imagination how anyone can enter such a small space and mine coal with bare hands and rudimentary tools. In 2011, I, along with my colleagues at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), went to Meghalaya at the request of local activists to study the environmental impacts of rat-hole mines. Over the next couple of months, we travelled across the state’s mining hotspots in the Jaintia and Garo Hills, collected data, tested water samples and interacted with stakeholders. We found environmental destruction on a massive scale, inhuman working conditions and gross illegalities perpetrated by miners in connivance with the state and local government.

A rat-hole coal mine comprises a deep vertical shaft (like a rectangular well) with narrow horizontal tunnels, two to four feet in dimension, dug on its sides. Miners go into these horizontal tunnels for hundreds of feet to take out coal. Primitive tools are used to build and operate these mines and accidents are common. Sometimes, the tunnel caves in, burying the miners; sometimes the tunnel gets flooded, drowning miners; sometimes, they asphyxiate. Most often, these accidents are not even reported as the majority of miners are migrants from Assam, Nepal or Bangladesh. At its peak in 2011–12, rat-hole mines produced about 10 million tonnes of coal, worth `2,000-2,500 crore. This large coal production in a small state had a devastating impact on its land and water resources. Meghalaya coal has high sulphur content, leading to acid mine drainage (AMD)—i.e. these mines discharge sulphuric acid. The acid discharge in some areas is so severe that they have made the rivers acidic, affecting aquatic life and corroding machinery at hydroelectric projects and dams. We tested water in the Lukha River in the Jaintia Hills and found the water to be highly acidic, leading to mass fish kills.

What we found most galling was the impunity with which the laws were being broken. None of the rat-hole mines had leases. In fact, there was no record of mine leases with either the ministry of mines or with the department of mining and geology. These mines simply didn’t exist on paper. Hence, all of them were operating without any environment clearance from the ministry of environment, forest & climate change (MoEF&CC) or consent from the Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board (MSPCB). In fact, MSPCB informed us that, as these mines are not registered, they can’t enforce the environmental laws. These illegalities were enabled by the so-called legal ambiguity regarding mining in the areas falling under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution.

The Sixth Schedule deals with the provision related to the administration of tribal areas in the states of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram. It provides for the establishment of autonomous districts and regions and details the powers of autonomous councils. In autonomous districts, District Councils have many powers, the most important being the power to levy certain taxes and the power to make laws with respect to the ‘allotment, occupation or use, or the setting apart, of land’.

A falsehood was spread in Meghalaya that, as it is a Sixth Schedule state, and the power to make laws with respect to land belongs to the District Councils, landowners can mine without any lease or permissions from the state or the Central government. To bolster the above falsehood, another myth was perpetrated—that the coal mines in Meghalaya were never nationalised.

Our partners in Meghalaya prepared a legal paper which clearly refuted the above falsehood. They found that the coal mines of the Khasi and Jaintia coalfields were nationalised under the Coal Mines (Nationalisation) Act, 1973. They also found that paragraph 9 of the Sixth Schedule not only stipulates the need for ‘licences or leases for the purpose of prospecting for, or extraction of, minerals’, but also how ‘the royalties accruing each year from licences or leases’ would be shared between the state and the autonomous District Councils.

RTI replies from the ministry of coal, ministry of mines and MSPCB informed us that all Central mining laws, like the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act (MMDR Act), and environmental laws like the Environmental Protection Act, 1984, the Water Act, 1974 and the Air Act, 1981 are applicable to the coal mines in Meghalaya.

Based on the scientific and legal information, we organised meetings in Shillong and Tura and informed the state government, district administration and the autonomous councils of the need to implement the legal provisions. But, alas, while everyone agreed with our findings, none committed to do anything. We handed over the report to the local activists with the hope that the information would be used to build pressure on the government to improve the situation.

The state government did nothing but, on a case filed by the All Dimasa Students Union that highlighted the unscientific and unregulated coal mining operations in the Jaintia Hills, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) finally declared rat-hole mines as illegal and banned their operations in April 2014. However, following the representation from the miners and the state government, NGT allowed the transport of already-mined coal on payment of royalty and environmental restoration fees. Since 2014, the NGT and the Supreme Court have granted multiple extensions to miners to take out and sell already-mined coal. But reports now clearly indicate that the extension of the deadline for transportation was used by the miners to do illegal mining all along. The state government knew this because they have collected more than `1,300 crore royalty and fees from coal during this period. Coal mining in Meghalaya has huge political patronage. The benefit of coal mining goes to tribal heads, a few landowners and the political class. The local community, in whose backyard coal is mined, hardly benefits from these mines. We should, therefore, not expect much from the state government.

In fact, instead of stopping the illegality, the state government has challenged the NGT ban in the Supreme Court. The State Assembly in 2015 adopted a resolution urging the Central government to exempt Meghalaya from the provisions of the MMDR Act and the Coal Mines (Nationalisation) Act, so that rat-hole mining can continue.

But the fact is rat-hole mines are just too environmentally damaging and unsafe to be allowed. One of the key conclusions of our report was that there is no such thing as environmentally acceptable and safe rat-hole mining and hence this primitive practice must be banned forever. Our other key conclusion was that no mining should be allowed without fulfilling the obligations under various laws, especially environmental and safety laws. The bottom line is the right to self-government does not translate into the right to pollute and destroy the environment, even in Sixth Schedule areas.

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