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When the State Conspires Against Us

Patricia Mukhim

This article appears on Day 35 of the mining tragedy at Ksan. The lack of compassion for the 15 miners was palpable from Day One. Arguments like this have been floating around – “Why did the miners choose to go down that hell hole despite knowing the risks involved?  Aren’t they there for the money?” And in hushed tones the conversation goes… “Apart from the three locals the others are not even, ‘our people.’ And nearly all of them are Muslims…perhaps illegal Bangladeshi immigrants from Assam and Garo Hills in Meghalaya, so why bother? But all this is par for the course when humanity is dead. The fate of those people inside the mine is sealed by their very socio-economic status. For them digging coal is a livelihood. For the mine owner it is wealth accumulation.

Wealth is power and we see that so clearly. Without wealth you have no voice. Even democracy costs money. Without money you can’t buy votes, so how can you contest elections? Wealth can buy property across the country; it can buy loyalty from the political establishment. Wealth can buy academic degrees. There’s no end to what wealth can do. It can get you the best, most expensive treatment for the host of ailments you pick up because you are rich and pampered. The rich mine owner can either contest elections himself or fund someone’s election and then make him/her dance like a puppet on a string. So what if in the process of mining, the rivers are poisoned and turn a sulphurous blue? So what if the soil is rendered unfit for growing food? Those with money can buy the food they like at a premium. It’s the poor that need to grow their food in what is called ‘subsistence farming.’  And there are many subsistence farmers in Meghalaya in case we forget and continually raise the bogey that coal mining provides livelihoods. The question is: Livelihoods at what cost? The way the mine owners and their supporters are arguing the case for coal mining is: Who will provide livelihoods to the hundreds of people relying on coal mining? The same can be said for drug peddling too. The drug peddler also feeds his family and accumulates wealth from that trade. So why is he treated as a criminal? If drugs have taken away many young lives then coal mining too has killed and continues to kill many unfortunate souls.

What is tragic and also ironic is that the State is willing to go all out to argue the case on behalf of the mine owners. Why is the Conrad Sangma Government so beholden to the coal lobby? Is it because the entire 2018 election was funded by coal? Is it because the NPP had promised to work at lifting the ban on coal mining if it comes to power and now has to deliver by hook or crook? So is this a Government by, of and for the coal mine owners? What happens to all of us who are not mine owners? To those of us who care for this Mother Earth that we live in? Those who can no longer watch in silence while the earth is abused day in and day out? Earth cannot speak for itself. It only acts in fury and that fury is awaiting us. What will happen to the coal mine areas when an earthquake of high intensity strikes? The abandoned mines will collapse one by one and anyone who is inside at the time will be dead. And it’s not as if such phenomenon had not happened. In 2011 Sohkymphor village in Jaintia Hills witnessed cracks on the earth’s surface that cut across the PWD road near a market place. At the time Mr BM Lanong was Deputy Chief Minister and also the Minister Mining and Geology. After seeing the cracks and speaking with geologists he was told the crack was due to rampant mining. After that there was silence on that front and Government never paid attention to the unscientific and hazardous mining practice in Meghalaya.

Then there are those who argue vociferously that the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution guarantees rights to tribals living under it to mine the earth beneath any which way they choose to. This is such a convoluted reading of a Constitutional guarantee provided to people at a time when they were part of the larger state of Assam with a predominantly non-tribal population. The Sixth Schedule was meant to conserve forests (other than reserved forests) water bodies and the culture of the people for whom it was created. Essentially the Sixth Schedule is for protection of our land; not for extractive mining which destroys the land and the waters that provide sustenance to us. Nowhere does the Schedule speak of individual rights of the tribal. It was envisaged to protect community rights. The rivers, forests and lands then were common property resources (CPR) which are meant to be shared inheritances, not privately owned. Much of the coal mines were once community-owned land which have been grabbed by a few moneyed people in connivance with the heads of the elaka. This abuse of the principles of the Sixth Schedule now also needs to be contested in a court of law because of the propensity of some to misuse this for private gains. The Sixth Schedule as conceived by JJM Nichols Roy was an instrument to protect tribal ‘homelands’, their culture and by extension their environment, for, how does culture thrive without the environment to foster it? Of course the Sixth Schedule also empowers the District Councils to enact laws on inheritance of property, marriage and social customs and is also vested with the power to try cases between tribals.  The Sixth Schedule empowers the Councils to collect land revenue and taxes from markets etc., not to pay salaries to their staff but to utilise those funds for securing the rights of the community. And certainly the Sixth Schedule does not say a word about mining because that already comes within the purview of state laws.

And to those arbiters of tradition who keep harking back to the Instrument of Accession one would like to ask this question: What has the so-called ‘Khlieh ki Nongsynshar Shnong’ done to protect the rights of the poorest in the community? Have they taken cognisance of the large scale damage to the environment? Did our ancestors not care about Ka Mei Ramew (Mother Earth)? Do they ever allow the poor to have their voices heard in their elite gatherings? The socio-economic caste census 2011 is not lying when it says that 76% of rural Meghalaya is landless. Is the above organisation even concerned? In fact the above-mentioned organisation is not just elitist but patriarchal too. So whither the Sixth Schedule? Is it really protecting all of us tribals or some influential private mine owners who seem to have so many powerful people speaking on their behalf?

Now that the whole country, nay the whole world knows the kind of mining practised in Meghalaya – which is a ruthless and inhuman way of sending poor humans without safety gear inside a hole to gouge out the coal and inhale sulphurous gas for 12 hours every day – the state will stand out as the prime violator of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution which is to protect the life and liberty of every individual. As citizens of Meghalaya we should hang our heads in shame that we have allowed this criminal activity to carry on before our noses for so long. And an unimaginative state has not bothered to create alternative livelihoods for the poorest. Is this why Meghalaya was created? That we should be regressing on all human development indicators? The only thing Meghalaya has done so far is to create affluent political, bureaucratic and business elite. The rest of the population    survive on their wits despite the government.  And the present MDA Government is moving on auto-pilot. No one knows who is actually in charge. Wonder when the stage of redemption will arrive?

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