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Stop rat-hole mining: Tribunal

Shillong, April 20: The National Green Tribunal has ordered a stop to rat-hole coal mining across Meghalaya and it observed that neither the government nor the people were benefiting from “illegal mining” except the “coal mafias” while warning against illegal transportation of the mineral.

This is the latest instance that a national authority has intervened in the traditional and unscientific form of coal mining that has been the order of the day for decades in the state and where there is a race in the pursuit of stockpiles of coal through rat holes where several lives have perished.

It is also for the first time that an authority has used strong words such as “coal mafias” while dealing with the contentious issue of Meghalaya’s “black diamond”.

The landmark order, which is likely to create waves in the coal-rich areas of the state, was passed on Thursday by a principal bench of Justice P. Jyothimani, judicial member, Justice M.S. Nambiar, another judicial member, and expert members G.K. Pandey, P.C. Mishra and Ranjan Chatterjee.

The four-page order came as the bench accepted an application on the issue of rat-hole mining in Meghalaya (original application no. 73/2014 and Misc Application no. 174/2014) filed by the All Dimasa Students’ Union (Adsu) and the Dima Hasao district committee.

While quoting from a detailed report on coal mining in Meghalaya prepared by O.P. Singh, professor (department of environment studies) in the North Eastern Hill University (Nehu), the tribunal said: “It shows an alarming situation existing in Meghalaya especially in the Jaintia hills wherein rat-hole mining has been in practice for a long time.”

“We are of the considered view that such illegal and unscientific method can never be allowed in the interest of maintaining ecological balance of the country and safety of the employees. It is also brought to the notice of this tribunal that by such illegal mining of coal neither the government nor the people of the country are benefited. It is only the coal mafias who are getting benefit by following this sort of illegal activities,” it further observed.

The All Dimasa Students’ Union had moved the Green Tribunal on April 2 blaming that illegal rat-hole mining in Jaintia hills is polluting Kopili river by turning its water acidic.

The Dimasa student organisation had placed before the tribunal two survey reports of 2006 and 2010 in which pH level of Kopili shows big differences.

A good pH level for drinking water should be between six and 8.5. If the pH level is lower than this, the water will be acidic and can be corrosive.

“The people of Umrangsu have to depend on Kopili for drinking water. The polluted Kopili water becomes a big threat to the life of all those who are dependent on the river source. We placed before the court all information, including the way rat-hole mining is continuing in neighbouring Jaintia hills and pitiable livelihood style of Umrangsu people who are basically dependent on the rivers, rivulets and streams that originate from Jaintia hills,” said Adsu Dima Hasao district unit president Aripom Bodo.

In its order, the bench further stated: “We are of the considered view that this act should be condemned and in any event such illegal activities are to be put to an end and the state of Meghalaya should come forward with an appropriate scheme and the statutory rules.”

The tribunal was also of the view that if rat-hole mining was practised in other parts of Meghalaya other than in the Jaintia hills, it should be put to an end in the interest of people working in the mines as well as for protection of the environment.

Rat-hole mining is practised not only in the Jaintia hills but also in the coal-rich areas of Garo hills and West Khasi Hills and South West Khasi Hills.

While admitting the application, the tribunal directed Meghalaya chief secretary and the director-general of police to ensure that rat-hole mining/illegal mining is stopped forthwith throughout the state. It also ordered that any illegal transport of coal should not take place until further orders are passed. The DGP was directed to report to the tribunal about the compliance of the order by the next date of hearing. The tribunal will again hear the matter on May 19.

The Meghalaya mining department and the Union ministry of coal have also been listed as respondents in the case. Submitting the application, the counsel for the applicants contended that rat-hole mining operations have been in practice in the Jaintia hills for many years “without being regulated by any law and extraction of coal has been made by unscrupulous elements in a most illegal and unscientific manner.”

It was also informed that there are umpteen cases where by virtue of rat-hole mining, during the rainy season, water flooded the mining areas resulting in death of many individuals including employees/workers.

The order has also come at a time when a separate bench of the tribunal is dealing with the July 6, 2012 incident when 15 miners were reportedly trapped inside a coal mine in South Garo Hills. The report on coal mining in Meghalaya prepared by Singh said extraction of coal had been taking place in Jaintia hills Khasi hills and Garo hills regions.

Major production, however, occurs in Jaintia hills. The mining activity in Jaintia hills is a small-scale venture controlled by individuals who own the land.

Primitive mining method commonly known as “rat-hole” mining is in practice in Meghalaya. In this method, the land is first cleared by cutting and removing the ground vegetation and then digging pits ranging from 5 square metres to 100 square metres into the ground to reach the coal seam. Thereafter, tunnels are made into the seam sideways to extract the coal, which is brought into the pit by using a conical basket or a wheelbarrow manually. Coal seams are reached by excavating the side edge of the hill slopes and then coal is extracted through a horizontal tunnel.

The coal from the tunnel or pit is taken out and dumped on nearby un-mined area, from where it is carried to the larger dumping places near highways for its trade and transportation. Entire roadsides in and around mining areas are used for piling of coal which is a major source of air, water and soil pollution. Off road movements of trucks and other vehicles in the area cause further damage to the ecology of the area. Every year new areas are brought under mining and area under coal mining in Jaintia hills is increasing every day.