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.
- 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.
- 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.