One month past the mining disaster

It was on December 13, 2018 that 15 miners were trapped inside a 300 ft shaft with horizontal crevices in what is defined as ‘rat hole mine’ because the horizontal holes from which coal is gouged out resemble holes burrowed by rats and moles. Since December 14, several agencies have been deployed in the rescue mission. However, the rescue operation suffered from gaping loopholes which bring into focus the point about hazardous mining practices under state patronage. Rat hole mining is unregulated hence it operates in a laissez-faire environment. Deaths inside the mines have happened in the past too but no one, except the mine owners and the family members of the dead were in the know of such misfortunes. Family members were resigned to their fates and were too powerless to report the tragedy. Besides, most miners are from outside the state and illegal migrants from Bangladesh and Nepal. This latest mine disaster was reported only because there was a solitary survivor. How can a modern state allow a mining operation that (a) deliberately ignores the safety of the miners who enter the mines to dig out coal from which the mine owners make their millions (b) has flouted all environmental norms;  poisoned rivers and affected agricultural land (c) has no plan in place to reclaim mines that are abandoned for decades and which have become reservoirs that flood nearby mines if the miners accidentally breach one such an abandoned mine.

Mining in Meghalaya should actually be carried out as per the rules set out by the Meghalaya Mining Development Corporation which in turn draws its sustenance from the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act 1957. According to the MMDR Act every person desiring to prospect for any mineral has to get a mining lease from the MMDC and follow all the rules of the MMDR such as environmental protection, mine safety, prevention of pollution and avoiding danger to public health etc. In Meghalaya mining is happening without the sanction of the MMDC on the plea that it is a Sixth Schedule state. But the Sixth Schedule never envisaged that private rights would supersede community rights. That the mine owners are hiding behind the Sixth Schedule is a travesty of the very legislation for protecting the tribal minority from exploitation by the majority non-tribal population. Today the tribal majority is suffering because the Sixth Schedule is being flagged as an Instrument to protect the private interests of a small group of mine owners at the cost of the environment and safety of miners. These are contentious issues that need urgent community dialogue.

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