In December 2018, the collapse of a coal mine in Meghalaya’s East Jaintia Hills, trapping at least 15 workers who were still missing and are feared dead, has thrown the spotlight on a procedure known as “rat-hole mining”. Although banned, it remains the prevalent procedure for coal mining in Meghalaya.
WHAT IS RAT-HOLE MINING?
It involves digging of very small tunnels, usually only 3-4 feet high, which workers (often children) enter and extract coal. The rat-hole mining is broadly of two types – side-cutting and box-cutting.
- Ban – The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has banned rat-hole mining in 2014, and retained the ban in 2015.
- The ban was on grounds of the practice being unscientific and unsafe for workers.
- The NGT order bans not only rat-hole mining but all “unscientific and illegal mining”.
- But orders of the Tribunal have been violated without exception.
- The State Government has failed to check illegal mining effectively.
WHY IS IT VERY PREVALENT?
- In Jharkhand, the coal layer is extremely thick, where opencast mining can be done.
- But no other method would be economically viable in Meghalaya, where the coal seam is extremely thin.
- Removal of rocks from the hilly terrain and putting up pillars inside the mine to prevent collapse would be costlier.
- So despite a ban, rat-hole mining remains the prevalent procedure for coal mining in Meghalaya.
- Rat-hole mining is the locally developed technique and the most commonly used one.
WHAT ARE THE IMPACTS?
- Ecology – Rat-hole mining in Meghalaya had caused the water in the Kopili river (flows through Meghalaya and Assam) to turn acidic. The entire roadsides in and around mining areas are used for piling of coal. This is getting to be a major source of air, water and soil pollution. Off road movement of trucks and other vehicles in the area causes further damage to the ecology of the area.
- Risk to lives – Due to rat-hole mining, during the rainy season, water flood into the mining areas resulting in death of many.
- If water has seeped into the cave, the worker can enter only after the water is pumped out.
Protection – Constitution’s 6th Schedule intends to protect the community’s ownership over its land and autonomy and consent over its nature of use. Coal mining currently underway in Meghalaya was a corruption of this Constitutional Provision. Private individuals with interests in earning monetary benefits from minerals vested under the land are engaging in coal mining. They are attempting to legitimize this act by claiming immunity through tribal autonomy over land ownership.