Indian rescue workers were still battling to reach 15 coal miners trapped underground for 13 days while their families prayed for their safe return. But any hope of finding them alive looked slim on Wednesday when floodwaters rushed through the illegal “rat-hole” pit.

Questions are now being asked about how the illegal mines in the area were allowed to exist for so long and some of the small-time miners talked about the risks involved.

Abdul Hussain, 25, from Panbari village in Assam’s Chirang district in eastern India, says he is lucky to be alive. A school dropout and unemployed, he used to illegally mine coal by crawling inside the rat hole-like mines in East Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya, but left one week before many of his fellow miners became trapped there.

On December 13, at least 15 miners were trapped in a 320-foot hole when water gushed into their mine. It is not known if they are still alive. The Meghalaya government had repeatedly denied illegal mining was taking place in the area.

“I worked at the mines for five years. It is, perhaps, the riskiest job in the world – they are rat-holes of death,” said Hussain. “It is always pitch dark and, in places, swampy and watery. But you can earn as much as Rs2,000 a day (US$28.59), and for a poor person like me, that’s a huge sum. Life, then, holds no meaning.

“We are small-time miners. The sardars (local managers) would say mining will continue, come what may. The police never stopped any trucks transporting large consignments of coal.”

When it all began

Meghalaya’s coal story dates back to 1815 when a coal deposit was discovered in Khasi and the Jaintia Hills region, which were both a part of Assam then. Mining started in the Jaintia Hills first.

Meghalaya’s reserves of 576.48 million tons of sub-bituminous coal are 36-56 million years old and spread across the state. Meghalaya became a full-fledged state in 1972 and commercial coal mining gathered pace in the 1980s, becoming one of the main sources of revenue.

However, miners were given no safety equipment – there were hollow pipes to talk to the crane operators, but no separate oxygen supply below ground.

The lone survivor of the December 13 accident, Sayeb Ali from Assam, said: “Anyone who works in these rat-holes knows that it’s a tight-rope walk daily between life and death. A lot of miners are used for this work for their agility. There are no checks whatsoever. I am lucky to have survived.”

In 2004, the National Green Tribunal imposed a blanket ban on coal mining in Meghalaya. The order came after the green court heard a petition by student bodies and civil administrations from Assam, Meghalaya’s neighbor on its western and southern sides.

The petitioners raised the issue of environmental degradation, including water contamination, soil pollution and an adverse effect on hydro-electric projects, due to unregulated and unscientific mining.

The green court also took into account a report by OP Singh, a professor of environmental studies at North Eastern Hills University in Shillong, which explained the environmental concerns about mining in the Jaintia Hills.

Despite a ban, unregulated mining continued. State police recorded 477 violations of the ban between April 2014 and November 7, 2018. The cases were from coal belts and transit routes in the districts of East Jaintia Hills, West Jaintia Hills, East Khasi Hills, West Khasi Hills and South Garo Hills.

Silencing protests

“I believe there is a nexus between the coal mafia and politicians, which is what has ensured that those involved in this illegal activity roam free. There is also loss of revenue. I am fighting against it all,” said Agnes Kharshiing, 58, the President of Civil Society Women’s Organisation, an NGO working for women’s rights and environmental causes.

Kharshiing was attacked by suspected coal mafia members on November 8 in East Jaintia Hills when she went there with another activist to check an illegal mining site. She was dragged into the jungle and assaulted. The attackers fled after locals heard Kharshiing’s screams and rushed to the spot.

Recuperating from a head injury, she said: “The attack on me is to threaten others fighting this menace. Many good officers have been shunted out by the government. As a result, those who are honest are scared to speak up.”

This was the second such incident in Meghalaya. In March, Poipynhun Majaw, who spoke up about illegal mining by cement companies in the region, was murdered in Khliehriat, a coal mining hub in East Jaintia Hills.

Previous mining mishaps

In the last two decades, Meghalaya has been the scene of many tragic coal mine accidents and a majority of the victims were migrant laborers from Assam.

In December 2013, five miners died when the cables of a crane used to lift coal from a 200-foot deep pit snapped. In July 2012 in South Garo Hills, another hub of coal reserves, 15 laborers became trapped after water gushed into their mine from a nearby flooded one.

In March 2009, eight miners from Assam were reported missing after becoming trapped in a mine in South Garo Hills, while on March 27, 2003, seven drowned when their mine, in the same district, collapsed. In early 2002, 40 miners were killed in the district, and later that year, six more died in two separate mishaps.

“These mishaps are due to a lack of a proper mining policy, which the state government should have ensured,” said Patricia Mukhim, a senior journalist and social activist.

When asked about compensation for the victims, she added: “How can we allow mining without any environmental and human safety measures, or even insurance for the laborers? There is no accountability in this activity. The Supreme Court needs to take an extremely serious view of it.”

Professor Singh, who played a crucial rule in the National Green Tribunal’s ban on mining, said the Meghalaya government had yet to submit an all-inclusive mining policy with a provision for the health of miners, the environment and compensation for the victims.

The challenges ahead

Up until 2014, at least 150,000 families in Meghalaya were dependent on coal mining for their livelihoods. After the ban, the government had not rehabilitated them or come up with an alternative way for them to make a living.

David Kharsati, an activist for the victim’s families under the organization Movement for Indigenous People’s Rights and Livelihood, said there should be a government policy on regulated mining, instead of a ban.

“These families have been directly affected [by the ban], and God alone knows how they are surviving. The children of many have had to drop out of school, while several have become migrant laborers,” he said.

“The clock is ticking for the government to come up with a clear policy that lets the mining continue without environmental degradation. Also, without the revenue from coal, the state can’t survive.”

However, Professor Singh blamed collusion between illegal miners and state politicians. “Coal gives easy money but at the cost of environment. So it all depends on the government’s willpower,” he said.

“Many politicians in Meghalaya are involved in mining. That’s why it hasn’t been stopped. A major challenge ahead of a complete shutdown of operations is finding an alternative livelihood for the families, and the government needs to think of one fast.”