- India’s National Green Tribunal in 2014 banned rat hole mining of coal and its transportation over concerns for the environment and labour conditions in the tribal-majority state of Meghalaya.
- Rat hole mining of coal is an unscientific practice to extract coal through narrow tunnels into the ground. It has led to widespread pollution of rivers, deforestation and disruption of traditional values in society.
- With extraction of coal tied to rights of indigenous communities over land, the ban was widely resented and challenged.
- The road ahead is to restore the environmentally degraded areas and rehabilitate exploited labour force.
The attack on an activist in a coal belt in India’s northeast frontier state of Meghalaya has spotlighted the issue of ecological degradation from “rat hole mining” and the outlawed activities continuing in defiance of a ban on this unscientific sub-surface mining technique in the state.
In November, well-known Meghalaya activist Agnes Kharshiing and her companion were brutally assaulted in Meghalaya’s East Jaintia Hills district when she had reportedly visited the site to document alleged illegal rat hole coal mining despite the interim ban on it.
Condemnation against the attacks by civil society organisations has also brought to the fore the complexities associated with the ban on rat-hole mining.
India’s National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2014 proscribed rat hole mining of coal and its transportation over concerns for the environment and labour conditions in the tribal-majority state adjacent to the state of Assam and bordering the country of Bangladesh.
The tribunal, however, permitted transportation of already extracted material lying in the open near the sites, subject to certain riders.
The primitive method of rat hole mining (also called box cutting) entails clearing ground vegetation and then digging pits vertically into the ground ranging till one hits the coal seam. Then tunnels are dug in from the sides for extraction of coal, which is brought into a pit by using a conical basket or a wheelbarrow.
The shafts are so small that miners, including women and children, have to squeeze in and crawl on their knees to extract coal using small implements such as pickaxes.
An extremely dangerous method, rat hole mining, is a practice unique to the state because of the thinness of the coal layer, explained environmental studies researcher O.P. Singh of the North Eastern Hill University, Shillong, Meghalaya.
Singh’s findings (with co-author Sumarlin Swer in 2003-2004) went on to form the background for court interventions a decade later.
“Rat hole mining is specific to Meghalaya because the coal seam is very thin here so other type of mining will not work because a lot of overburden (waste) will be generated,” Singh told Mongabay-India.
As large-scale commercialisation of coal mining took-off in the 1980s, mushrooming “rat holes” triggered alarm over the absence of post-mining treatment and management of the mined areas, labour exploitation and heightened vulnerability of the ecologically fragile areas.
The ban was imposed by the tribunal following a petition filed by the Assam-based All Dimasa Students’ Union and the Dima Hasao District Committee. The student body complained that rat hole mining in Meghalaya’s Jaintia hills, had turned the Kopili river that flows from Meghalaya to downstream Assam, acidic.
NGT’s observations were also echoed in the Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG) report in the same year. The report also singled out damage to the Kopili hydroelectric project due to acidic discharge from the coalmines.
Mining kills caves, rivers and aquatic lifeforms
These coal stockpiles and mining dot the entire state but are primarily concentrated in the Jaintia hills. Meghalaya, the abode of clouds and the lush green landscape of Jaintia hills, is now pockmarked with mining spoils amid swirling black dust and rusty orange rivers.
The rivers and streams of the Jaintia hills are the “greatest victims” of mining, contend Singh and Swer in their reports.
The culprit is the spike in acidity of rivers and streams, when water washes along the sulfur-rich coal (a phenomenon called acid mine drainage or AMD) that degrades water quality and thins biodiversity in the water bodies of the mining area.
Active and abandoned mines, coal storage sites and overburden rocks are sources of this acidic seepage, telltale signs of which can be seen in the reddish orange and brownish hue of of most of the rivers and streams in mining areas in Meghalaya.
Leaching of heavy metals, organic enrichment and silting add on to the burden of water pollution. Most of these rivers and streams flow towards south-east into the flood plains of Bangladesh. However, a few also flow towards northern side into the Brahmaputra valley, Singh’s study notes.
“The rivers in Jaintia are all dead creating problems for those dependent on them,” bemoaned Brian D. Kharpran Daly, secretary, Meghalaya Adventurers’ Association, who had filed a petition seeking a ban on mining to save Meghalaya’s intricate network of limestone caves and caverns, some of the largest in the subcontinent. While limestone mining “kills” caves, digging deeper for coal also impacts them.
“When there is mining, there is deforestation and with the heavy rainfall that we see in Meghalaya, there is heavy erosion. All this eroded soil finds its way into the caves and chokes passages. And this very acidic water that drains off the coal mine, finds its way into the caves which are home to exotic and endemic lifeforms,” Kharpran said.
“You have lifeforms which are unique and overnight whatever little population is present is extinguished,” Kharpran told Mongabay-India.
Smaller streams and rivers either disappear or have become seasonal in nature as surface water trickles into and disappears in the unfilled mine pits and caves, triggering acute shortage of clean drinking and irrigation water in the Jaintia hills, added Singh.
Meghalaya has estimated coal reserves of 559 million tonnes (MT), spread over an area that is slightly larger than the size of the city of Kolkata.
Wildlife and environment protection groups have alleged coal mining goes on under the state government’s radar. The NGT coal ban fuelled Meghalaya’s election campaign in early 2018 as parties traded barbs on the inaction to end the ban. Differences in central and state laws have further added to the knotty affair, pointed out Kharpran.
Citing coal mining as a traditional livelihood option, the newly-elected National People’s Party which leads the six-party coalition government Meghalaya Democratic Alliance (MDA), has promised resumption of mining in the state in accordance with India’s environmental norms.
At its helm, Chief Minister Conrad Sangma continues to refute allegations of illegal coal mining in the state.
With the ban inching towards its fifth year, Meghalaya police’s online records throw up over 700 criminal incidents with the keyword “coal” from November 2014 to November 2018.
Mining operations in Jaintia Hills has “undoubtedly brought wealth and employment opportunities in the area, but simultaneously has led to extensive environmental degradation and disruption of traditional values in the society,” observed Singh in his scientific reports.
“The situation has not improved since we conducted the tests,” he said.
Boon and bane
Adding to the complexity of the issue is the fact that the right to extract coal is connected to the right of tribal communities over their lands.
A 2016 study “Tribal communities and coal in Northeast India: The politics of imposing and resisting mining bans” which discusses the scenario in Meghalaya and Nagaland, two tribal-majority states subject to coal mining bans, notes that bulk of the coal mining activity has been initiated and managed by members of tribal communities rather than profit-driven outsiders.
The study notes that unlike in other parts in India (notably Odisha and Jharkhand) where large state or private enterprises seek to modify the law to enable coal extraction, in Meghalaya it has been communities that resent and challenge laws being applied to their lands.
Under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution the tribal and native communities residing in Meghalaya have exclusive rights over their land, which includes mining operations, explained Kharpran.
The NGT ruling elicited fierce protests by coal mine owners and transport workers and a range of political parties and civil society organisations have also opposed the ban, invoking their belief in the Sixth Schedule. However, Meghalaya comes under the ambit of the central law, the Coal (Mines) Nationalisation Act, 1973.
In parallel at play is the state’s own mining policy Meghalaya Mines and Mineral Policy (2012) which “does not discuss rat hole mining, framed as a ‘traditional’ form of mining that is beyond state intervention, stating in clause 7.6 that ‘small and traditional system of mining’ by local people in their own land shall not be unnecessarily disturbed.”
This year the state government challenged the NGT ruling in the Supreme Court which has fixed December 4, 2018 as the final hearing date on issues related to coal mining in Meghalaya.Meanwhile, Chief Minister Conrad Sangma has also asserted that Coal Mines Nationalisation Act, 1973 has been repealed.
Untangling the curse of the black gold
In August 2018, the National Green Tribunal constituted an independent committee to look into restoration of the environment and related matters.
In the last meeting of the committee in October, Meghalaya’s mining and geology as also forest and environment departments, have suggested use of satellite imageries to survey, map and delineate the coal mines, dumping sites and the areas affected by coal mines. The committee also discussed closing abandoned rat hole mines by controlled blasting.
To counter acidic run-off, the committee batted for the state government’s full support to conduct trial treatment of acidic effluents.
Singh, who is assisting the committee as a special invitee, has collaborated with Meghalaya Basin Development Authority to steer a pilot project to neutralise the AMD contaminated acidic water of a stream in East Jaintia Hills District by open limestone channel (OLC).
“The results were encouraging and the state government is in the process of replicating it in other parts of the district,” he said.
The way forward now is to focus on rehabilitation and restoration of the degraded areas, Singh added.
Banner image: A satellite imagery with visible rat hole mines scattered across the landscape in Jaintia hills, Meghalaya. Map by Google Earth.