Rat-hole mines: Negating human lives and ecology

  • In India’s latest mining disaster, at least 15 workers are feared dead in Meghalaya’s notorious rat-hole mines. The sub-surface and unscientific form of mining was banned by the National Green Tribunal in 2014 but it continues despite the prohibition.
  • Efforts are on to rescue the miners who were trapped following a flooding incident inside an illegal mine in Meghalaya’s East Jaintia Hills.
  • In India, coal mines have claimed over 200 workers between 2015 and 2017. But economic conditions drive many to continue risking lives as coal miners.
  • Since the national elections are around the corner, the mining accident will most likely play a role in the poll discussions.

“We had seen water flooding the abandoned quarries around us. I was tensed. But we were told not to worry and continue extracting the coal,” recounts a petrified Sahib Ali, a survivor of India’s latest mining disaster in Meghalaya’s notorious “unscientific” rat-hole coal mines.

Sahib Ali, a 21-year old resident of Assam who had picked up work in the ill-fated and illegal quarry in Ksan in Meghalaya’s East Jaintia Hills, says there were 17 others besides him who were working inside the controversial rat-hole mine which got flooded on December 13.

As many as 15 are reported to be trapped inside the 380-feet- deep mine of which 70 feet is flooded. Among them are three of Ali’s friends from his village in Assam.

“There were 22 of us in all. 18 (including Ali himself) went inside and four were on duty on the ground. I did not go deep inside as my work was that of pulling carts once they were piled with extracted coal. Water gushed in from nowhere and I could feel a draft of cold air. I held on to an electric cable hanging from the shaft roof,” Ali told Mongabay-India.

In India, coal mines have claimed over 200 workers between 2015 and 2017. In the northeastern state of Meghalaya at least 15 of Ali’s co-workers are feared dead in this latest mishap.

While Ali recuperates back at home in neighbouring Assam’s Chirang district, with his near-death experience haunting him every step of the way, multiple government agencies have ramped up efforts for search-and-rescue of Ali’s co-workers.

As Christmas segued into New Year, hopes dimmed. For these are rat hole mines, labyrinth of passages so small that one needs to scurry rat-like, crawl on hands and feet or lay flat to navigate. Unprotected and without any insurance, miners, mostly poor migrants are drawn to the unregulated industry in desperation.

“There is no chance that the others have survived. It may not be possible to recover their remains as the tunnels are narrow and branch out everywhere. Coal mining is a dangerous job but we have to take risks as there are no livelihood options for us. But we did not know these mines are illegal,” Ali said.

Efforts to retrieve the 15 trapped miners. Photo provided by EastMojo.

Illegal rat-hole mines a death trap for miners

That rat-hole mining is rampant despite the ban is clear from the incident. In less than a month, dead bodies of two miners were recovered from a quarry in the same district. Police suspect the miners were killed by falling boulders while they were extracting coal.

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 Meghalaya, that is adjacent to  Assam and bordering Bangladesh.

The NGT had noted that there are “umpteen number of cases where by virtue of rat-hole mining, during the rainy season, water flooded into the mining areas resulting in death of many number of individuals including employees/workers.” For instance in July 2012, 15 miners drowned in a mine in South Garo Hills. 

Following the December 13 incident, the NGT slapped a Rs 100 crore fine on Meghalaya for failing to curb illegal mining.

Rat-holes have left ugly scars on the once-lush green landscape of the hill districts. Satellite imagery reveals landscapes speckled by bullet-hole like pits while acidic, orange-brown rivers are tell-tale signs of the environmental destruction.

The primitive, subsurface method of rat hole mining (also called box cutting in its modern version) entails clearing ground vegetation and then digging pits ranging from five to 100 square metre vertically into the ground till one hits the coal seam which is between two to four feet thick.

Then tunnels are hacked in from the sides for extraction of coal, which is brought into a pit by using a conical basket or a wheelbarrow.

This network of passages is so small that miners, including women and children, have to squeeze and scurry in and crawl on their knees or lie flat to extract coal using small implements such as pickaxes.

The mishap comes within a month of a brutal attack on Meghalaya activist Agnes Kharshiing and her companion in the same district when she had reportedly visited a site to document illegal rat hole coal mining despite the interim ban on it.

Hasina Kharbhih, founder of the Shillong-based Impulse NGO Network, that has been addressing the issue of human trafficking and child labour in the rat-hole coal mines of the Jaintia Hills district, for the past nine years, echoed Ali.

“Retrieving the bodies is next to impossible. These mines are haphazardly dug and the passages (rat holes) are zigzag in nature and because they are not planned there is no mapping of water bodies and so the source of water bodies is not known,” Kharbhih said.

The NGO’s petition against illegal coal mining, estimating the rat-hole mines employed 70,000 child labourers, was one of the two petitions heard by the tribunal ahead of its order. Most of these children hailed from the neighbouring countries of Bangladesh and Nepal.

Now that children are no longer working in the mines, the activist pointed out, the coal businessmen could not have new mines and turned to abandoned mines.

“The mine in question is a cross mine (abandoned mine) and is vulnerable to accidents. It’s a sad state that since children are no longer working, they could not have new mines so they use grown up labourers to go back to these old abandoned mines,” Kharbhih said.

To use these cross mines is asking for trouble, she said.


Focus on latest mining accident higher ahead of upcoming elections

The coal mine mishap has also shattered the National People’s Party-led state government’s denial of rampant, illegal coal mining in the state under the garb of “traditional” practice. Wildlife and environment protection groups have long 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. Citing coal mining as a traditional livelihood option, the newly-elected National People’s Party (NPP) 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. The NPP-led MDA is backed by the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Kharbhih asserts the disaster is being played up to gain political mileage ahead of the 2019 general elections. “24 such accidents have happened in the past but they were shoved under the carpet. Now that the elections are coming up this particular event is being played up. There is disaster and drama,” she said. “They want to show that they are powerful enough to get lives back and it’s time to do scientific mining – keeping hopes alive among people that coal mining will go on.”

But they can’t do scientific mining unless the digs are refilled as per the NGT directive, Kharbhih pointed out.

Adding fuel to the political fire, Congress MP Vincent Pala urged the national government to “regularise” rat hole mining to prevent accidents, while the Supreme Court has rapped the Meghalaya government for sluggish rescue efforts.

The apex court said for people trapped in the mine in Meghalaya “every second counts.”

Despite its treacherous nature, for scores of migrant youth like Ali, the abyss-like mines offer a ray of hope for a decent living.

“For a day’s work an experienced miner earns Rs. 2000 whereas in my village I could only make Rs. 300. My family has urged me to stay back but I have to take a call soon,” Ali added.


Read more: Meghalaya’s black holes: Unregulated rat-hole coal mines ravage environment .

Banner image: Rescue-operation personnels entering the illegal coal mine at Ksan in Jaintia Hills district of Meghalaya. Photo provided by EastMojo.


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