[op-ed snap] A tragedy that was long in the making

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Mains Paper 3: Environment| Conservation, environmental pollution and degradation, environmental impact assessment.

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: Basic knowledge of ill-effects of illegal coal-mining in Meghalaya.

Mains level: The news-card analyses the issues with illegal rat-hole mining in Meghalaya causing ruinous effects on the environment, in a brief manner.


Context

  • The efforts to reach the 15 miners trapped in an illegal coal mine in the East Jaintia hills of Meghalaya since December 13 continue.
  • However, these efforts began belatedly and have faced many problems.
  • Further, illegal rat-hole mining in Meghalaya persists despite ruinous effects on the environment.

Rescue efforts were doomed from the beginning

  • First, the Meghalaya government has no idea what happens inside these rat-hole mines, which are barely 2 ft wide, since mining is a private activity.
  • Despite the National Green Tribunal ban of April 2014, mining continues in the State.
  • Second, it was unfortunate that the district administration assumed the miners to be dead on the very day of the tragedy.
  • This assumption was evident in the letter written to the National Disaster Response Force.
  • It was only after a Delhi-based lawyer and his team of human rights lawyers presented their suggestions to the court that the Meghalaya government got different actors to the accident site.

Issue: Why things were delayed?

  • The distance of the mine was a major hindrance.
  • The trapped miners were being racially profiled in the minds of the people and the state.
  • Of the 15 miners, only three were locals from the nearby village of Lumthari.
  • The rest were Muslims from Garo Hills, Meghalaya, and Bodoland, Assam.
  • Their socio-economic profile also worked against them.
  • They were the poorest of the poor who took a huge risk to enter a mine and dig for coal without any safety gear.

Other challenges faced: No single person or agency to coordinate the rescue mission

  • When a mine is flooded, the immediate response, apart from pumping out the water, is to stop further flow of water into it.
  • This requires a hydrologist to scientifically map out the area from where water entered the mine.
  • Sudhir Kumar, a hydrologist from the National Institute of Hydrology, Roorkee, arrived only two weeks after the disaster.
  • So did the divers from the Indian Navy and the 100 HP water pumps from Kirloskar Brothers.
  • The remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) from Planys in Chennai came three weeks later and so did the geologists from Hyderabad.
  • All these delays happened because there was no one person or agency to coordinate the rescue mission.

Questions arise with respect to rat-hole mining of coal

  • Why does the state allow this archaic mining system, which has complete disregard for human life and safety?
  • Why is Meghalaya exempted from national mining laws?

Ill-effects of Rat-hole mining

  • Rat-hole mining, which started with gusto in the 1980s, has poisoned three rivers in the Jaintia hills: the Myntdu, Lunar and Lukha.
  • Scientists from the North-Eastern Hill University have found that these rivers have very high acidic levels.
  • Reports from other agencies suggest that pH of the water and sulphate and iron concentrations indicate significant deterioration of the rivers.
  • Acid mine drainage from abandoned mines was a major cause for water pollution in the areas investigated, the reports added.

Arguments of coal mine owners

  • According to the coal mine owners, rat-hole mining should continue because no other form of mining is viable.
  • They argue that the NGT ban should be lifted since they claim that coal mining provides livelihoods for many.

Tribes of Meghalaya are divided on the issue of rat-hole mining

  • Those who care for the environment and for a future for their children and grandchildren have been clamouring for an end to the practice of rat-hole mining and reckless limestone mining.
  • On the other hand, the mining elite have mobilised forces to demonise environmental activists.
  • To add to these woes, cement companies also release their effluents into the rivers.
  • So now a deadly cocktail of pollutants is being released into the environment.
  • The scale of the problem is clear in this one fact: there are 3,923 coal mines in one district with a geographical area of 2126 sq. km.

Meghalaya is a Sixth Schedule State

  • The other troubling factor is that coal mine owners are insisting that since Meghalaya is a State under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, national mining laws should be exempted here.
  • The Sixth Schedule was enacted to protect the community rights of tribals from any form of exploitation of their land and resources.
  • It cannot be used as an instrument to protect an activity that is a private enterprise and inhuman. It also violates Article 21 of the Constitution.
  • Therefore, it seems that the Sixth Schedule is unable to protect the forests and rivers that are common property resources.
  • Acid mine drainage has rendered even agricultural land non-productive. Mine owners do not care about environmental degradation.

Abandoning their responsibility

  • There is complete disregard for corporate social responsibility by coal mine owners because the mines are privately owned by the tribals.
  • They have left thousands of abandoned mines as human graves.
  • The State also does not insist that they reclaim and afforest those mines.
  •  In 40 years of mining and profiteering, the mine owners have till date not constructed a single hospital or even a school.

Conclusion

  • The Central government and the Supreme Court should not allow this to carry on in one part of the country when strict laws are applied elsewhere.
Disasters and Disaster Management – Sendai Framework, Floods, Cyclones, etc.
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