By Arun Kadambavanam
In Meghalaya, the ‘Coal Truth’ remains that everyday workers, mostly migrants, risk their lives to extract coal to repay the advances they have taken. Imagine for a second, crawling hunched through 2-3 feet wide holes with very little light or oxygen through a labyrinth of tunnels. And along with this is the constant fear of innumerable possibilities of death, including death caused by the tunnels being flooded. This is the story of 15 workers who are now feared dead in the rat hole mines in the East Jaintia Hills district, Meghalaya.
India’s environmental court, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned coal mining in Meghalaya in 2014. Not only was environmental damage a reason for the ban, but the order by the court stated that often children are made to work simply because they are smaller in size and can navigate easily through the tiny tunnels. In addition to the problem of child labour, rat hole mining is also an example of how vulnerable and poor migrants in search of work to make ends meet, fall into the rat hole traps of death. Added to this, is the effect this method of mining has had on the environment in the local areas, drastically damaging the quality of water in the surrounding regions.
The realities of the Meghalaya rat-hole mining incident are telling. We are ready to exploit the future of our generation for cheap labour to gain high profits. We are ready to hurt the environment with our incessant greed for resources. But this has also revealed a major gap between declaring a ban and implementing the ban. Why is it that ever since the ban by the NGT, rat-hole mining has continued, and owners of such businesses continue this business with brazen impunity? Enforcing proper systems, checks and procedures need to be made to ensure that the ban is upheld. The long-term impact of illegal mining on any community, the impact in individuals lives and families like the 15 workers from Assam who are now feared dead, and the impact on us as a society far outweigh our immediate need for such resources.
At this moment, we can only hope that the 15 trapped miners are rescued and restored to complete safety. And going forward, we can begin to work towards ensuring that such illegal activities are not only banned on paper but are prevented from taking place in the first place. Until then, the Coal and Dark Truth of rat-hole mining remain.