Coal and Mining Sector

[op-ed snap] Death traps: on Meghalaya’s illegal mines


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

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: NGT, Geographical Aspects of Meghalaya

Mains level: The newscard discusses issues related to illegal mining in a brief manner.


  • The tardy response of the Centre and the State of Meghalaya to the plight of at least 15 workers trapped in a rat-hole coal mine since mid-December has exposed the extraordinary indifference in government to labour welfare and the law.


  1. Ongoing efforts to reach victims of a mining disaster in northeastern India have exposed what campaigners say is poor enforcement against such illegal mines, where undocumented workers risk injury or death.
  2. Environmental concerns have led to India imposing bans on the mining of coal, mica and sand, among other minerals. Yet, workers across the country continue to put themselves at risk as illegal mining continues.
  3. The most recent disaster highlighted the dangers of so-called “rat-hole” mines, where workers crawl into narrow shafts on bamboo ladders to extract low-quality coal.
  4. In Meghalaya, it is estimated that 5,000 rat-hole mines continue to function despite a ban imposed in 2014 by India’s environmental court, the National Green Tribunal.

Why is it very prevalent?

  1. In Jharkhand, the coal layer is extremely thick, where open-cast mining can be done.
  2. But no other method would be economically viable in Meghalaya, where the coal seam is extremely thin.
  3. Removal of rocks from the hilly terrain and putting up pillars inside the mine to prevent collapse would be costlier.
  4. So despite a ban, rat-hole mining remains the prevalent procedure for coal mining in Meghalaya.
  5. Rat-hole mining is the locally developed technique and the most commonly used one.
  6. It is not regulated by any law, and coal extraction has been made by unscrupulous elements in a most illegal and unscientific manner.
  7. Meghalaya’s annual coal production of nearly 6 million tonnes is mostly said to have come through rat-hole mining.

What are the impacts?


  • Rat-hole mining in Meghalaya had caused the water in the Kopili river (flows through Meghalaya and Assam) to turn acidic.
  • The entire roadsides in and around mining areas are used for piling of coal.
  • This is getting to be a major source of air, water and soil pollution.
  • Off road movement of trucks and other vehicles in the area causes further damage to the ecology of the area.

Risk to lives

  • Due to rat-hole mining, during the rainy season, water flood into the mining areas resulting in death of many.
  • If water has seeped into the cave, the worker can enter only after the water is pumped out.

Does Meghalaya not have a policy?

  • The NGT finds the 2012 policy inadequate. The policy does not address rat-hole mining and instead states: “Small and traditional system of mining by local people in their own land shall not be unnecessarily disturbed.”
  • In its 2015 order, the NGT observed: “The State of Meghalaya has promulgated a mining policy of 2012, which does not deal with rat-hole mining, but on the contrary, deprecates it.


Trafficked workers

  1. Illegal mining tends to attract workers from around India and neighbouring countries who are lured by the promise of relatively high wages, but are faced with dangerous conditions once they arrive.
  2. Workers in the coal mines are promised about 2,000 rupees ($28.46) per day, more than 10 times the average Indian daily wage.
  3. When the anti-trafficking charity Impulse NGO Network surveyed rat-hole mines in Meghalaya between 2007 and 2013, it found 1,200 children, many of whom were trafficked from Nepal and Bangladesh.

Mining -A death trap

  1. India is one of the world’s most dangerous countries to be a coal miner, with one miner dying every six days on average in 2017, according to government data.
  2. The number is likely even larger, as deaths in illegal mines are common but often go unreported.

State apathy

  1. Although the primary responsibility for the operation of illegal mines lies with the State government, the Meghalaya government has been evasive on the issue of the continued operation of the illegal mines, in spite of the adverse findings of the Justice B.P. Katoki committee appointed by the NGT.
  2. As reported by the Katoki panel, it could be of the order of 24,000 mines, majority of them were operating illegally.
  3. Illegal mines continue to operate is flagrant violation of rules under the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, the responsibility lies with the State government.
  4. Parliament was informed that 22 States had constituted a task force to review illegal mining and act on it, but Meghalaya does not figure in that list.

Way Forward

  1. State governments need to draw up protocols on how to monitor and enforce bans against illegal mining, while the central government must follow up as well.
  2. The State government should implement reforms and diversify employment away from dirty mining under primitive conditions over the years,
  3. The Justice B.P. Katoki committee had sought a ban on coal mining in Meghalaya. It had also taken into account some reports of the state pollution control board.
  4. It is the responsibility of the Centre and the State to rehabilitate the workers from impoverished communities, reportedly including some child labourers, who are ready to undertake the risky labour.


Rat hole mining

  • It is a primitive and hazardous method of mining for coal, involves digging of very small tunnels, usually only 3-4 feet high, which workers (often children) enter and extract coal.
  • Rat-hole mining is broadly of two types. “In side-cutting procedure, narrow tunnels are dug on the hill slopes and workers go inside until they find the coal seam.
  • In the other type of rat-hole mining, called box-cutting, a rectangular opening is made, varying from 10 to 100 sq m, and through that is dug a vertical pit, 100 to 400 feet deep.
  • Once the coal seam is found, rat-hole-sized tunnels are dug horizontally through which workers can extract the coal.
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