The Telegraph
Wednesday , May 7 , 2014
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Tribunal order rattles ‘system’

- Coalmine owners criticise NGT order banning rat-hole mining

Shillong, May 6: The interim order by the National Green Tribunal, which ordered a stop to rat-hole coal mining and illegal transportation of the black diamond across Meghalaya, has rattled “the system” in the state.

Coalmine owners across the state had severely criticised the tribunal order. The government, on the other hand, got into a huddle to prepare, what it called, “points” to be placed before the national authority.

The tribunal, through the order, had asked the Meghalaya chief secretary and the director-general of police to ensure that rat-hole mining/illegal mining is stopped forthwith throughout the state. It had also ordered that any illegal transportation of coal should not take place until further orders are passed.

On May 19, the tribunal will hold a hearing on the matter where, among others, Meghalaya director-general of police, Peter James Pyngrope Hanaman, would have to submit a compliance report vis-à-vis the April 17 order.

In its order, the tribunal had observed: “We are of the considered view that such illegal and unscientific methods can never be allowed in the interest of maintaining ecological balance of the country and safety of 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.”

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.

According to the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010, stringent penalties await those who fail to comply with the tribunal’s orders.

The tribunal had acted on an application filed by the All Dimasa Students’ Union (ADSU) and Dima Hasao District Committee (DHDC) from Assam before it on April 2.

The All Dimasa Students’ Union had contended that illegal rat-hole mining in the Jaintia hills was polluting the Kopili river by turning its water acidic. Two survey reports of 2006 and 2010, where pH levels of the Kopili show big differences, were also placed before the tribunal.

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.

In fact, even the North Eastern Electric Power Corporation Limited has come down heavily on the “unscientific” coal mining in the Jaintia hills.

The corporation had contended that the acidic water from the mines had corroded the machines used for power generation from the Kopili river.

The Kopili flows through Umrangsu in the Dima Hasao (formerly North Cachar Hills) district of Assam, bordering Jaintia hills. The Kopili Hydro Electric Project was the maiden venture of Neepco when it came into existence in 1976. The project generates around 275MW of power.

During his visit to the state capital in 2011, then Union minister of state for power, K.C. Venugopal, had directed Neepco to co-ordinate with the state government to find ways how the acidic water flowing from the mines should not hamper the machines installed in the Kopili river. However, the fate of this directive from the Union minister is unknown.

Coal mining in Meghalaya has come under the scanner from several quarters. Even the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) had also come down heavily on the way coal was being mined as children were allegedly used as labourers to excavate the mineral from the rat-hole mines.

“It was confirmed from the size of the rat-holes that only children could work and adults could not enter into it. Visiting the area with widespread coal mines, the team observed that in none of the mines had any safety measures, not to mention welfare measures, not even a first-aid kit could be seen in any of the depots/mines,” a report from the NCPCR stated.

Yogesh Dube and Vinod Kumar Tikoo, NCPCR members, and Ramanath Nayak, senior consultant, NCPCR, prepared the report after their visit in 2012.

“The rat-holes prevalent in the mines bore the testimony of prevalence of child labour, as it is humanely not possible for an adult to enter those holes to extract coal, and this was concurred by the district administration and the deputy labour commissioner accompanying the team,” the report added.

In fact, the NCPCR team also had first-hand knowledge of the infamous rat-holes.

“As one of the members of the team was eager to experience the process of going inside the deep pit and extracting the coal, the officials took them to the nearby pit. There was a make-shift ladder, built by using tree trunks, leading to the pit which looked very risky. One of the members (Dr Yogesh Dube) went inside the pit to have firsthand experience of being in the coal pit. He tried to go inside the well. The well was about 200 feet deep and after going down halfway, Dube felt suffocated and instructed the person accompanying him to climb back,” it pointed out.

However, the report pointed out that Vinod Kumar Tikoo, NCPCR member, who entered a rat-hole, enquired with the mine engineer if he has ever entered a rat hole on the side ways of the coal mine wherein gas, fumes were emanating.

“The response was negative. The member even offered incentives to the mine engineer but he refused, saying that it was too dangerous. Then he (mine engineer) was asked how his department allowed the pits to operate without any safety measures, risking the lives of children to extreme risks. The gaseous fumes even affect the respiratory system and that explained the increased number of medical emergencies in the area,” the report further added.