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Hearing on Garo hills miners’ death today

Shillong, Jan. 23: The National Green Tribunal (NGT) will tomorrow hear a case on the death of 15 labourers trapped in a coal mine in Meghalaya’s South Garo Hills district in 2012.

Dissenting voices, however, echoed at an advocacy workshop on “environmental matters” organised by the tribunal over the issue of flouting of environmental norms and haphazard mining leading to pollution of rivers and death of aquatic lives annually.

The workshop was organised by the tribunal at the Yojana Bhavan main secretariat here today. It was attended by NGT judicial member M.S. Nambiar, NGT expert and former Meghalaya chief secretary Ranjan Chatterjee, besides representatives of various organisations and officials from Meghalaya and Assam governments.

“We cannot say anything now as the matter is pending with the tribunal for a decision,” Justice Nambiar told reporters on the sidelines of the workshop.

In November last year, the tribunal directed the Meghalaya government to come out with the truth. It even threatened to dig out the mine after the government stated in its report, submitted to the tribunal, that 15 persons who were reportedly trapped inside a coal mine could have escaped as no bodies were found.

The mining disaster occurred at Nangalbibra in South Garo Hills district on July 6, 2012. Thirty coal labourers were inside the mine when the incident took place, but 15 miners managed to escape while the remaining 15 were trapped inside the mine and are feared dead. The missing labourers are yet to be traced.

The tribunal had earlier directed a counsel of the mine owner to ensure that his client is present at the hearing.

Meghalaya has its own mines and minerals policy to regulate mining activities in the state, but despite the law being in place, numerous incidents of miners dying inside the mines were reported.

On unscientific mining in Meghalaya, Nambiar said the NGT was looking into the issue.

Earlier at the workshop, the tribunal members, while interacting with the participants, faced a volley of questions including the state government’s failure to penalise erring cement companies, which have not implemented mandatory compensatory afforestation scheme.

From violation of forest act by cement plants — operating in the state including mineral-rich Jaiñtia hills region — to haphazard mining of coal and limestone, the participants urged the tribunal to intervene. They held unscientific mining responsible for polluting the environment especially rivers and streams that are turning acidic.

To cite an instance, the Lukha river in East Jaintia Hills district is one which has been making headlines for the past few years as colour of water changes. The colour of the river turns “blueish” and this has been noticed since 2007, when several dead fishes were found floating for unknown reasons.

Though the tribunal has banned sand mining, stopping illegal lifting of boulders and sand from the rivers in Meghalaya is a challenge as the state government linked it to livelihood activities.

However, today, the tribunal told participants in the workshop that sand mining is not totally banned but “permissible”.

“Sand mining is not banned totally and those carrying out this kind of activity have to get necessary clearance from the authorities concerned,” Nambiar clarified.

Nambiar said to have an unpolluted environment is also right of the people adding that the tribunal has been set up to address disputes on issues related to environment.

Chatterjee gave a powerpoint presentation and enlightened the participants about the role of the tribunal established according to the NGT Act, 2010.

He said that any citizen aggrieved with the decision of the tribunal could approach the apex court by filing an appeal within 90 days under the Code of Civil Procedure.