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Thin line between life and death in a coal mine

- NDRF account reveals inhuman conditions faced by miners as mine owners, govt mint money

Shillong, July 15: “Rat hole”, “black diamond”, “dark money”— these are the phrases which reveal the sorry state of affairs in the unscientific coal mines of Meghalaya.       

The stark reality has been captured in the detailed account given by National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) after its personnel negotiated through the “death traps” in a coal mine in South Garo Hills last week, to rescue the miners who were reportedly trapped inside the dark pit.

An NDRF official yesterday said to enter the mine was “inviting threat to life”. The invitation to risk one’s life inside the pitch-dark mines is not only in South Garo Hills but also in the mining areas of Jaintia hills and West Khasi Hills.

While the disaster response force could not locate any living or dead miner inside the mine, the account it provided was a kind of mirror image of a documentary film Dark Money, produced by a Catholic priest last year.

“The saga of the coal mining community of Nonghyllam in West Khasi Hills is one of constant struggle.” These are the words from the synopsis of the documentary produced by Father Siby Sebastian Thomas of the Claretian congregation.

The 24-minute documentary focuses on the life of Spellangki, a miner working for the past 25 years but whose condition remained unchanged even as his masters (mine owners) minted money out of his “toil, tears and sweat”.

“Spellangki and his family continue to live in a hut covered with only a plastic sheet near the mines in Nonghyllam. Like the place, his condition has not improved in the past 25 years. He continues to be poor. His family is malnourished. Who cares for such people?” Fr. Thomas, originally from Kerala, had told The Telegraph in March last year.

The priest could not have said it better. The miners’ state is pitiful to say the least. Many do not possess a proper identity and cannot fight for their rights even as they negotiate between life and death while they haul out the “black diamond”.

Asked why he chose Dark Money as the title for his documentary, Fr. Thomas had said, “Coal mining brings quick money for the mine owners. At the same time, the lifespan of miners decreases. It gets darker.”

But as the miners’ lifespan decreases, the state government enjoys a huge chunk of revenue from the “black diamond”.

In fact, revenue generation from minerals, especially coal and limestone, constitute the largest chunk of income collection for Meghalaya.

Last year, according to data provided by Samrakshan Trust, the extraction of coal in the state started increasing from 1985 onwards and in 2005-06, the amount of coal extracted annually stood at 5,565.7 metric tonnes.

In 2009-10, 57,67,017 metric tonnes of coal was despatched from the state. The royalty collected on coal also jumped from about Rs 38 crore in 1996-97 to Rs 114 crore in 2007-08.

The narration provided by NDRF and the Catholic priest are immense eye-openers for authorities to crack the whip on all those who mint money without any shred of responsibility towards those who enter the “rat holes” to extract coal.

The state government had recently stated it would come out with an order to make mine-owners responsible for any untoward incident that might take place inside mining areas.

The order, once implemented, would cover all mining areas across the state to ensure coal mine owners adhere to safety norms for welfare of the miners.