Is the Government giving up on the trapped miners?

By H H Mohrmen

It is now exactly a month since the tragic accident occurred where miners were trapped inside a rat hole mine at a place called Ksan, but in spite of all the efforts made by the rescue teams, we are yet to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The fate of the trapped miners is still unclear as the efforts of those involved in the operation are to rescue the trapped miners despite all odds.

It is also unfortunate that as time passes the accident has gradually slipped away from the minds of the people and fate of those trapped miners will also be forgotten. As always media space will be taken over by more popular issues like the Citizen Amendment Bill, 2019 and the 10 percent quota and other pressing concerns of the day. And gradually the trapped miners issue will be pushed to the back burner. In such a situation, if the accident is to have any meaning for us then it should be from lessons learnt from this grim episode, because, as the saying goes, “Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”

The incident at Ksan not only made the State Government turn red in the face, but it also shows how ill-prepared the administration is when a situation like this occurs. But the most tragic part is the attitude of the government towards the unfortunate accident, where it was left to almost the State Disaster Response Force SDRF, the NDRF, the Indian Navy, the Odisha Fire Service, the team from the Kirloskar Brothers Ltd and the Coal India Limited to handle the operation, as top government officials were on leave or on vacation during the crucial part of the operation.

In spite of the fact that commercial mining in the state began more than four decades ago, the government was caught off guard and the initial reaction of those in the administration was only to inform the NDRF team about the accident and seek their help. The state government as the first respondent didn’t know how to go about rescuing those 15 lives where time is of the essence. They neither had any technology or knowhow to conduct an operation in case of a mining disaster of that magnitude. The SDRF were also only trained to respond to disasters in the event of an earthquake, fire accidents, warlike situation, or floods as this is evident from the drills conducted time and again.  But a mining disaster was not on their radar screen. Therefore much precious time was wasted in arranging for the right equipments and personnel to arrive.

This scribe has time and again raised the issue of closing abandoned mines which the miners have left unattended, but all efforts fell on deaf ears. During summer, the overflow from the abandoned mines flows to the streams nearby and pollutes the water bodies. Now we see how the abandoned mines can create other problems as well and can become a hurdle to the rescue operations too. The incident also brought to light the kind of license that the government allowed to the coal mine owners in executing their business which can only be described as mindboggling. The coal mine owners do not have a blueprint, a map or not even a rough sketch of the mines they operate in this free for all kind of business. In the absence of any regulation the government does not insist on the coal mine owners to even have a rough sketch of their mines, in spite of earning crores of rupees from the business.

On the contrary the Meghalaya Adventurers Association which is only a voluntary organisation of people who are interested in caves has surveyed, documented and mapped more than one thousand caves in the state. MAA through its annual expedition using their own resources have a map of every cave they explored handy, in fact information about the depth, the length and other aspects about the different caves were published in two volumes. But the coal mine owners cannot even prepare a simple sketch of the mines which earn them crores of rupees. This only shows the apathy that the mine owners have towards the safety of the miners and the protection of the environment.

And what is the attitude of the coal mine owners towards the disaster? A stoic silence! For the mine owners such accidents are taken in their stride and expected. The trapped miners are just collateral damage that goes with the business of coal mining. No one from the mining community or from the different associations that they have, have made any public statement about the accident and neither did they show any regret for the human tragedy at Ksan.

From media reports we also learned that expectations from the victims’ families has also changed from hoping to see their loved ones alive to wishing that at least the rescuers will be able to retrieve their bodies to enable the families to conduct their final rites. This is what time can do in a situation like this. Hope just vanishes; just like that!

Apart from the Congress MLAs and the two ministers who visited the place where the accident happened, neither the Chief Minister nor his Deputy visited the accident site. The CM had ample time for other things but he is yet to visit the tragedy site or to even meet the families of the victims. It has also been a month since the rescue operations began. Personnel of the various governments agencies engaged in the operation had put all their efforts to rescue the trapped miners, but the government is yet to show any sign of gratitude to the different teams. In the accident the government has not only failed its own people but it has also failed those benefactors who came to our help as a state.

What lessons have we learned from the incident? The most important statement from the Chief Minister after he had an interacted with heads of the agencies engaged in the rescue operation was a five word sentence, ‘It is an uphill task’. Of course the CM admitted that the accident could have been avoided or at least the rescue operation would have been easy if the mining activity is regulated, but that is too late now. So is the government going to give up on the trapped miners?

Now after the accident at Ksan both the government and the opposition in the state are talking about the need to regulate mining. The Shillong MP VH Pala who in the past led a delegation to convince the central government to free mining in Meghalaya from the purview of the central laws which govern mining, is talking about regulations now. The Chief Minister too, is talking of the need to regulate mining. Now all those who advocate against rampant destruction of the environment caused by mining have been saying this all along. Why were their voices stifled by governments past and present? Why does it take the present government and the Congress party so long to realize the need to regulate mining?

The CM’s other statement in defending the large scale illegal mining going in the state is to say that it is not possible for the administration to man every inch of the state. Taking the CM’s statement into consideration, activists can also ask how then government can regulate mining if it cannot oversee how the activity is being regulated in every nook and corner of the state! But the truth is there is a difference between denying that illegal mining is going on by omission and with government agencies actually aiding the activity and government departments conniving with  the illegal act. The different agencies turning their blind eye to what happened in spite of the ban have only proved that the government itself is half-heartedly implementing the NGT ban.

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