This article was first published on 15 December 2018 by The Wire.
Update: Divers from the Navy and the NDRF went inside the flooded Meghalaya mine on Saturday to conduct a recce and measure the level of accumulated water as part of the rescue operation of the 15 trapped miners.
Abdul Karim turned 28 last month, but he has “nothing to feel good about it”. Six years ago, a spinal cord injury inside a rat-hole coal mine in Meghalaya’s East Jaintia Hills left Karim’s limbs paralysed. “While I was digging, a big chunk of rock fell on my neck. It affected my spinal cord. I can’t walk anymore. Fellow labourers helped me get out of the mine and since then I am using a wheelchair. I am useless now, can’t earn a living,” he related.
On December 13, when news spread that 13 labourers were trapped in a mine in the Ksan area of East Jaintia Hills, Karim got restless. He frantically called his elder brother Abdul Kalam Sheikh, but he received no reply.
On December 6, 30-year-old Abdul Kalam had left his home in Magarmuri village of Meghalaya’s West Garo Hills district along with four others to Ksan to work as a labourer in a mine. “After my legs got paralysed, my older brother began to go to the mines. He became the sole breadwinner of our family of nine; had to earn more. If you work the whole day in a mine, you get Rs 1,200,” said Karim on phone from his village.
Typically, the coal mined in Meghalaya’s East Jainita Hills, West Khasi Hills and South Garo Hills is laden on to trucks for neighbouring Assam. Most of the coal mined in Meghalaya is taken to Kabaitari in Assam’s Bongaigaon district bordering West Bengal and thereon is transported out of the region. Kabaitari is considered the largest coal market in the Northeast.
NGT ban on illegal coal mining
However, in April 2014, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) clamped a ban on rat-hole mining in Meghalaya in response to a petition filed by two Assam-based organisation belonging to the Dimasa community. The petitioners contended that drinking water in the Kupli River was severely polluted with the acid produced in the coal mines of Meghalaya’s Jaintia Hills.
Responding to an appeal by Hima Nogstoin Land Owners’ Association of Meghalaya, the Supreme Court, however, allowed transportation of the already mined coal stock lying with the owners till May 2017, but to be distributed only within the Northeast.
In December 2016, days after demonetisation was announced by the Centre, when this correspondent visited Kabaitary, the coal traders said the SC deadline would be missed as they didn’t have enough cash to pay the truckers and the labourers and the transportation work had stopped. However, activists monitoring the sector have been expressing doubts on whether all the coal being transported was only from the stock prior to the NGT ban. The December 13 accident vindicates their stand that fresh mining has been taking place in the state in violation of the ban.
On asked about the ban, Karim said he was only concerned about his job. “It is for the government to check whether they are legally or illegally run. We are poor and they provided us a means of livelihood, so I went.”
One Hobi Rahman, a thekedar from Karim’s village, has been taking labourers to the mines. On December 6, Abdul Kalam went to the Jaintia Hills with Rahman.
Since then, the family have eagerly been waiting for Abdul Kalam to send money home. However, three-four days ago, he called to say that though he worked for two days in a mine, he wasn’t paid. “Usually, you have to work for a week to get payment. If you don’t complete the week, you don’t get paid even if the work is stopped by the owner for some reason. So he decided to go into another mine,” said brother Karim.
That happened to be the one where the accident took place on December 13.
Logbook not maintained
“My brother was among the first labourers to enter the mine. He sent us a photo of the mine a day before. The newspapers have given the names of only 13 labourers, but nobody is counting my brother and some others who went in first and didn’t come out. So obviously, the number is more than 13,” Karim told this correspondent.
As per the East Jaintia Hills Police, the names were given by fellow labourers and locals and they have no means to verify if there are more labourers trapped inside the mine.
Such miscalculation of the number of labourers, as per Karim, is typically because no logbook is kept to monitor the names and time of entry of the workers into the mines. “This is because they are illegally run. So all the loss is yours. When I met with the accident, neither the thekedar nor the mine owner gave me any compensation. There is no insurance,” he told The Wire. One-and-a-half month before Karim met with the accident in 2012, another labourer from his village met with a similar accident and is also using a wheelchair.
After the December 13 accident, the mine owner, James Sukhlain, reportedly fled the scene. Local news reports said over 100 National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) personnel have been pressed into service from December 14 to rescue those trapped inside the 320 feet deep mine, flooded presumably by the waters of River Lytein.
The NDRF authorities told reporters that the water inside the mine “is around 70 feet deep.” The personnel have since been pumping water out in order to reach the labourers.
Some distance away from Magarmuri is Phersakandi village, within the West Garo Hills district. Two of the village youth are also trapped inside the mine. “It is the same scene of crying and worrying in those houses too. The state government hasn’t done anything to inform the families about the rescue operation,” said Tura-based social activist Jaynie Sangma, after visiting some of the victims’ families on December 14.
Karim said, “Only yesterday did we manage to put together some money and sent a few village youth to the site of the accident, which is 16-17 hours away. They have reached Shillong now and are about to go to the accident site which is approximately 150 km away. So, we are hoping to get some information either by tonight or tomorrow morning.”
Social activist Agnes Kharshiing was brutally attacked by a powerful miners’ lobby in East Jainita Hills in November, while verifying information about illegal mines in the area along with fellow activist Amita Sangma. She told The Wire from Shillong, “About a year back, I visited a few areas in the Jainita Hills and met people who were brought from Nepal, Assam and other areas to work as cheap labourers in the illegal mines. On asked, they said they were poor and needed a means of livelihood. I was also told by villagers about labourers regularly dying inside the mines.”
Kharshiing, who is recovering from her injuries, can barely talk. In a WhatsApp message, she said, “It is difficult to believe that the local authorities are not in the know about illegal mining going on in these areas with the help of cheap labourers brought from various places.”
Jaynie Sangma added, “The December 13 incident highlights that it is not only about the plunder of natural resources, but also that human lives are at stake. The government should find a way to protect resources and ensure means of livelihood for the poor. Otherwise, this vicious cycle would go on in spite of an NGT ban.”
Barely eight months prior to the attack on Kharshiing and Amita Sangma, a local activist was allegedly murdered in the East Jaintia Hills by the coal mafia. The man who reportedly led the attack on Kharshiing and Sangma was Nidamon Chullet, the East-West Jaintia Hills president of the ruling National People’s Party (NPP).
The NPP president and state chief minister Conrad Sangma has, however, admitted that illegal coal mining is taking place in the state after the December 13 accident. He reportedly said he would take action against it.
Meanwhile, Abdul Kalam’s wife is seven months pregnant and awaits her husband, holding a ten-month-old baby on her lap. While Abdul Karim wondered, “What will we do now to keep the house running?”
Published in arrangement with The Wire.