Curse of Coal

The five-year-old fight is finally over and the state government is already gloating about it. A day after the Supreme Court allowed Meghalaya to mine coal, albeit scientifically, Conrad Sangma tweeted, “We as MDA Govt today reiterate our commitment to the people of #Meghalaya. NPP had pledge to lift the ban on coal and united effort by the MDA Govt has ensured that the matter was followed up in the Supreme Court that gave its verdict today setting aside the ban on coal mining.”
In this moment of ‘victory’, amnesia is common and one can be pardoned for forgetting about the mass grave at Ksan. But that is beside the point. The point that Sangma missed in his tweet is that the court order comes with a rider. He forgot to mention that a mammoth task of stopping illegal mining and introducing scientific methods lies ahead. It is a long way to go. But the tweet makes a different impression on common people who may think that mining will start immediately.
This apprehension is also expressed by BP Katakey, who is heading the monitoring committee set up by the National Green Tribunal.
Katakey says his only apprehension is that “people will start mining immediately, or maybe they have already started because they are not aware of the other aspects (of the judgment) or the implications (of mining unscientifically)”, which will be a violation of the Supreme Court order.
“The Government of Meghalaya should be very strict. It is up to the state government to make people aware that they cannot do this,” he adds.
While the government should have started its awareness programme immediately after the verdict to stop the hoi polloi from drifting into the abyss of vagueness, nothing like that has been done so far. Does it imply that the NPP-led government does not mind illegal mining or is it only concerned about the political mileage and strengthening its position for few more terms?
As we wait for an answer and suitable action, let us look into the positives and negatives of coal mining in the state. There is only one bright side of coal mining and that is the miners’ coffers will be filling up again thanks to the state’s determination. The negatives, on the other hand, are aplenty.
The pernicious impact of coal mining was already witnessed when rivers in the Jaintia Hills started changing colour more than five years ago and the aquatic life was completely destroyed. Environmental degradation for coal mining can be irreparable.
That politicians cutting across party lines in the state were rooting for coal mining for all these years is not surprising as many of them were mine owners who were affected by the ban imposed by the National Green Tribunal.
A study by OP Singh, professor of Environmental Studies at NEHU-Shillong, points out, “Mining operation, undoubtedly has brought wealth and employment opportunity in the area, but simultaneously has lead to extensive environmental degradation and erosion of traditional values in the society. Environmental problems associated with mining have been felt severely because of the region’s fragile ecosystems and richness of biological and cultural diversity.”
Despite such extensive study, policymakers in the state chose to remain blind. They are continuing to do the same.
The long-term impact of coal mining can be disastrous and subsidence of swathes of land cannot be ruled out.
Also, mine money has done little in encouraging overall development of Jaintia Hills or the state. It has only made the rich-poor gap wider. Those who sustain on agriculture have been greatly affected as decades of illegal mining has degraded soil fertility. For Meghalaya, which is primarily an agrarian state, mining will only have adverse economic consequences.
Katakey says the NGT committee was holding campaigns to make people aware of the impact of illegal mining “but I don’t know how far it will be successful after the SC verdict”.
“I still believe that awareness is necessary because (people should know that) getting approval for mining in compliance with the MMDR Act is difficult… and the Government of India will not give approval if it is not sure about it,” he points out.
That illegal mining will not happen again given the unique landholding system (both land and the mineral underneath belong to private parties) cannot be guaranteed. The state government failed to stop illegal transportation of coal in all these years (though it had always denied the fact) and it may again fail to act.
“The government has to be more responsible. Revenue is important for the state but money cannot be an important factor all the time. Human life and environment are also important,” rightly points out Uttam Langthasa, president of the All Dimasa Students’ Union, Dima Hasao district committee.
Langthasa says people in Dima Hasao district fear that the Kopili river will be polluted again. “We respect the verdict but apprehensions remain… I don’t think rat-hole mining will stop.”
Even if mining starts with all precautions, there should be strict monitoring by a government-appointed committee. Katakey says that after the court verdict, “I don’t think the mandate to monitor scientific coal mining remains with the committee”.
Langthasa emphasises that Meghalaya should form an expert monitoring body and adds that the union will soon approach the Assam government to form an expert body to keep an eye on the developments.
The Supreme Court judgment can be seen as a victory for the government and miners but it is a defeat for the common populace and the state because even scientific mining will have an adverse impact on the biodiversity of the state. It is also a setback for the green crusaders who were fighting to save the state and its pristine nature for years.
So when the government says it is committed to the people of Meghalaya, does it really mean it?

~Nabamita Mitra