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'The lives of coal miners don't matter'

December 28, 2018 08:57 IST

'On November 8, two women activists were assaulted and left for dead because they were following the illegal mining trail. This is how bad the coal mafia is in Meghalaya.'
'Most politicians own coal mines, some policemen own coal mines and some in the administration own them.'
'So what you have is a nice cocktail and everybody is protecting each other.'

IMAGE: Rescuers at the site of the coal mine that collapsed in Ksan, Meghalaya. Photograph: ANI

On December 13, at least 15 men went down a 370 feet deep illegal 'rat hole' mine in the Jaintia Hills district of Meghalaya to extract coal.

A fortnight later, three helmets have been found, but nothing else.

Even as the families of the miners pray for them, Kyrmen Shylla, Meghalaya's disaster management minister, has pinned his hopes on 'God's grace and some miracle' to keep them alive.

The manner in which India is handling this humanitarian crisis is in stark contrast to the successful rescue operation in Thailand to save a young football team and their coach, where India played a key role by sending high-powered dewatering pumps.

"Very little was done. Now even if you do it, it is too little too late as those people are dead anyway. You cannot survive in a rat hole coal mine for 14 days," Shillong Times Editor Patricia Mukhim, who has written extensively on mining in the state, tells Rediff.com's Syed Firdaus Ashraf.

 

Sixteen days have passed and no one seems to bother about the miners.

This is not the first time a mine disaster has taken place in Meghalaya. We do have any standard operating procedures as to what needs to be done first in case of a tragedy and the district administration of the East Jaintia Hills did not act speedily.

They did not seek help from the defence forces in Meghalaya at a time when they should have sought help from all quarters.

They should have appealed to the Centre for high power pumps of 100 hp, but by the time that requisition was sent it was already a week.

Mining experts would know how to plug the leak in that hole because if you cannot plug the leak, then the water continues to come in as it comes in from the adjoining river to the mines.

Also, nobody from the political system or any minister came to the site as they were not concerned about these faceless people. This entire incident shows that nobody is concerned enough for the poor labourers.

Is there a history to such incidents in Meghalaya?

In 1992 in the Garo Hills, 30 people were trapped in a mine, of which 15 managed to escape.

In 2012, 15 people were trapped again in a mine. This is the third tragedy of its kind.

WATCH: Rescue operations underway at the coal mine

You have been stating that Kirloskar pumps could have saved the life of these miners as they did in Thailand where children were stuck in caves.

Kirloskar pumps are very powerful. The district administration has been giving funny excuses as to whether it was viable to bring those pumps. They were wondering even if they bring them all the way whether it would work or not. What kind of argument is that!

It just shows that very little was done. Now even if you do it, it is too little too late as those people are dead anyway.

You cannot survive in a rat hole coal mine for 14 days as you will die of (lack of ) oxygen or you can die because of thirst.

People are compelled to work in such inhuman conditions. Are there no employment opportunities in Meghalaya?

If we want to stop inhuman work conditions, then we have to stop illegal mining.

The National Green Tribunal has banned illegal mining since April 2014, but mining is carried on and on.

The government too blatantly denied that there was any illegal mining, but we, in the media, know and carry stories of illegal mining and consistent illegal transportation.

This accident calls out the lie of the state government.

There is a new elected government in Meghalaya. Hasn't anything changed?

Nothing has changed.

This (National People's Party-Bharatiya Janata Party) government, in fact, promised to lift the ban on coal mining. They rely on coal money to fight political battles. Unless you have money, you cannot win elections.

The previous (Congress) government was equally bad as it too allowed illegal mining and closed its eyes to illegal mining.

The NGT, which imposed a ban on illegal mining, has no machinery to check the ban.

Are these workers so poor that they have no option but to go to these illegal coal mines to earn a living?

The more they work, the more they earn. Some of them get up to Rs 3,000 per day depending on how much coal they bring out.

The conditions are pathetic, but it shows how desperate they are to earn their livelihood.

IMAGE: Rescue workers have been complaining that the water levels in the mine haven't reduced, making rescue operations almost impossible. Photograph: Reuters

Why do you feel there is no outrage in the country over the fate of these miners?

This region is alienated and has always been so. What happens in Meghalaya does not matter to anyone unless there is lot of blood spilled.

Even among the people of Meghalaya there is no outrage because the people who have died are mostly not from Meghalaya.

Four of them are from Assam. Three of them are from local areas. Seven of them are from the Garo Hills, which is part of Meghalaya, but the perception is that the people who go inside coal mines are not from Meghalaya, so nobody cares.

The lives of coal miners don't matter and in our country the value of human life is cheap.

Do you think the rest of India is emotionally distanced from the trapped coal miners in Meghalaya?

There is an emotional, physical and every kind of distance. This region is connected to the rest of India by only four percent of land via Siliguri; 96 per cent of our land is bordered by foreign countries.

When the children were trapped in Thailand, it was big news in India, but when the same thing happens in Meghalaya nobody seems to be bothered.

We sent our Kirloskar pumps to Thailand and there is a letter from Thailand thanking our government. And nobody even today knows about this incident.

Our paper (Shillong Times) is carrying this news persistently, but who will carry this news in national newspapers?

How many such mines are there in Meghalaya?

There are thousands of such mines.

Where does this illegal coal find a market?

It goes to every part of India. It also goes to factories in Meghalaya. Earlier, when this was legal it used to go to Bangladesh.

But the question that has to be asked is: Why should national mining laws not apply to Meghalaya? Why are we exempt from national mining laws?

Just because we are a Sixth Schedule (external link) state, so mining goes on with no environmental safeguards and no human safeguards.

On November 8 two women activists were assaulted and left for dead because they were following this illegal mining trail. This is how bad the coal mafia is in Meghalaya.

Most politicians own coal mines, some policemen own coal mines and some in the administration own them.

So what you have is a nice cocktail and everybody is protecting each other.

What about the people of Meghalaya? Why are they not coming out against the illegal coal mafia?

What can people do as there is so much to protest about? There is fatigue too in civil society.

Lots of people are afraid for their lives because your house will be petrol bombed and you will be attacked.

My own house was petrol bombed on April 17 this year for writing against the coal mafia.

In our country, the hue and cry is very selective as you have to have a strong enough constituency.

Syed Firdaus Ashraf / Rediff.com