In Gujarati, there is a popular saying which seems apt metaphorically and literally for the circumstances surrounding this practice. It goes by, કોલસા ની દલાલી માં હાથ કાળા. It translates to, Your hands are black in trading coal.

The uncanny resemblances to the film ‘Kaala Patthar‘ are uncharacteristically and Bollywood-ly supernatural in nature, however in the case of the latter, the ideas were manifestations of the novel ‘Lord Jim‘ by Joseph Conrad, its Hollywood adaptation starring Peter O’Toole and the real-life Chasnala Mine Disaster tragedy.

But one thing that the film got outwardly right is its characteristic & over the top representation of absolute apathy and lack of accountability by the people responsible for the tragedy. Still, even the larger than life and the unimaginative exaggerating tendency of Bollywood of the incidents relating to real life don’t come close to the grim reality of this situation over the years.

In the aftermath of the Chasnala Mining Disaster, the innumerable attempts to cover up the severity and the magnitude of the situation by the authorities as well as the Indian Iron and Steel Company (IISCO), which owned the mine, laid the foundation stone and the beginning to give us all a whiff of our future reality. It was an unprecedented failure of all three pillars of democracy, the media, and humanity. The justice served, in this case, is nothing less than a mockery of the victims of this disaster.

Unsurprisingly, reports from Chasnala told of a culture of lax procedure, inadequate safety equipment, and insensitive management.

However, the reminders of better safety measures and proper mining practices have been constantly knocking at the door.

“The only change over the years has been that focus has shifted from underground mines to open-cast mining,” said B K Singh, joint secretary of Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh in Chasnala. “Although Chasnala is still underground, most of the mining in SAIL-IISCO mines and even in BCCL (Bharat Coking Coal Limited) mines in Dhanbad is now open cast. Open-cast mines have a better safety record.”

In September 1995, a BCCL mine in Gaslitand, Dhanbad, was inundated when the river Katri breached its embankment. It killed 65 laborers and technical personnel.

In February 2001, a mine in Bagdigi, also in Dhanbad, got inundated killing 31 including the mine’s manager.

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Presently, Coal mining is done on a huge scale, both legally and illegally, in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, and Jharkhand. The coal seam in these states is thick and hence, open-cast mining can be practiced easily in their coal reserves and safety more or less can be ensured. But, in the Northeastern states of Meghalaya and Assam, the coal seam is thin and hence, underground mining needs to be practiced which is unsafe and expensive to manage. So in an attempt to subvert these ‘hindrances’, the practice of Rat Hole Mining was adapted to extract coal in huge amounts.

Rat Hole Mining is a term used in coal mining and is so named because of its name during the colonial times, the Sistema del rato, and because of the sizes of the holes. The mining is done by digging small holes into the ground, much like the holes dug by rats. Miners break the rocks with axes and other hand-held equipment and carry out the material in baskets or buckets.

These small holes are horizontally dug and are usually only 3-4 feet high. This method employed child laborers because of the size of the hole. It is most prevalent in the state of Meghalaya, where the mining industry contributed to a major portion of their economy.

The unregulated nature of the exercise also meant child labor flourished and few safety measures were followed. Workers ventured into mines with little more than their tools and a head-torch. The consequences were often dire. Although officials statistics are tough to come by, people associated with the business admit that cases of people dying in the underground mines were rather common. “There’s no point lying – it’s true that workers often got trapped and died,” said a coal trader.

Coal is a major deal in the state. In 2013 alone, the state government had earned around Rs 600 crores in revenue from coal. So when the ‘National Green Tribunal (NGT)’, banned the practice along with “all unscientific and illegal mining” on the grounds of being harmful to the ecology and unsafe for workers, the news came as a blow to the local population.

Across Jaintia Hills, several people associated with the coal trade and the many ancillary businesses that have sprung up around it expressed the same sense of shock. “Everything changed in one jhatka,” said a miner in neighboring Lad Rymbai. “It was like notebandi [demonetization]. They did not give us any time.”

The range of people affected by the ban is diverse: coal miners and traders, truck owners, motor parts shop owners, garages, small cha and ja (tea and rice) establishments. Almost all of them share a common sentiment – of being let down by the Congress government and Chief Minister Mukul Sangma.

Among the local tribal people, it is a strong belief that the government has no control or rights on the coal reserves and its mining rules don’t apply to them. The status of Meghalaya as a Sixth Schedule State in our constitution, which protects the tribal rights over land in the North East Region, makes this belief even stronger. The Coal Mines (Nationalisation) of 1973, dismisses this belief and clearly states that the control and possession of the minerals (which include the coal reserves) lie with the state. A provision mentions the need for “licenses or leases for the purpose of prospecting for, or extraction of, minerals”. The single way in which the state can be excluded from the coal nationalization law is by a presidential notification to that effect. There was a dire need for the state to formulate a mining policy in the immediate aftermath of this law, However, they only managed to do it in 2012.

In the early 1980s when the commercial mining of the coal began, with minimal regulations and supervision from the state, the industry grew manifolds in scale. This no holds barred approach to mining caused a major disturbance on the area’s ecology.

Large tracts of land were rendered uncultivable, the water acidic, and the air toxic. 

Miners admit in private that the damage to the environment was rampant and perhaps irreversible. “Once upon a time, rice grew here,” said a miner pointing towards a plot of open space that was used to dump coal. “Now nothing will ever grow here. It hurts to see our land like this. Our rivers have also turned poisonous, the government needs to come up with a policy so that we can do scientific mining.”

Despite imposing the ban in 2014, the orders were violated on a regular basis and the state government has failed to regulate the ban imposed on the practice. The NGT made a provision to allow transportation of the already extracted coal on incessant appeals by the miners. This failure is in connection to the existence of the ‘Coal Mafia (A dangerous nexus of miners, politicians, and bureaucrats)’ in the state. Agnes Kharshiing, a local activist against the illegal mining practices in the state and who was recently attacked along with fellow activist Amita Sangma by a gang having connections to the ruling National People’s Party (NPP) party, made the following statement in a recent interview to The Wire:

It’s a network that allows illegal coal mining and transportation. It is a nexus of wealthy coal-mine owners and financiers with selected government officials, including from the police, and politicians of ruling parties. This nexus is clearly visible. For example, when we complain about trucks carrying coal illegally and police are forced to seize them, calls are made by the powerful to free them.

They both were attacked while trying to verify information about the transportation of the illegally mined coal in large quantities. It is a well-known truth in the area, that illegal mining still thrives despite the ban and all coal transported out of the mines is not only from the already extracted coal.

They were rescued by the local police in a critical condition and were then admitted to a hospital in Shillong. So far only 8 people have been arrested, including the surrender of the main accused Nidamon Chullet, working president of the East/West Jaintia hills of the ruling NPP, a move questioned by Amita Sangma as she alleges that more than 30 people were involved in the brutal attack. The state government has ordered an independent inquiry into the incident but the activists are demanding a CBI inquiry instead and have written to the Prime Minister regarding the same.

So, when on December 13th, at least 15 miners got trapped while extracting coal, it provided concrete proof that the practice continues in defiance of the ban and against constant denials from the government. The workers got trapped after the water from the nearby Lytein river rushed in through the cracks and holes of the mines and flooded them as a result.

It is important to understand the social fabric of the state where most of the people doing this work are poor Bengali migrants who are mostly seen as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants by the local population. A large portion of the labor workforce in different sectors is of similar background. However, there was a constant flow of Bangladeshi migrant laborers for decades because it suited the land and mine owners who were local elites and could profit heavily by exploiting the labor. There has been numerous allegations and confirmations by local truck drivers admitting they have seen numerous people being transported in the trucks to meet the labor requirements especially in the case of child laborers. The child laborers are mostly from Nepal and Bangladesh, who are pushed into this practice by their families or poverty and hence, made to work in these mines with little to no safety and no compensations in case of accidents. A local NGO called the Impulse NGO Network has been working tirelessly in freeing the children from this practice. However, after the ban the cases of children working in the mines have reduced, it has attracted adult migrants because of the high pay. The risk of getting injured or losing one’s life is gambled in order to make decent money and manage to support the members of the family. However, exploitation is still rampant with no official records of their employment.

The response by the state government in rescuing the miners has been appalling, to say the least. The efforts have been comically amateurish and the reluctance to act decisively has been visible from the very first day of the incident. It was only after the rescue efforts were blasted by the Supreme Court, we have seen sincere efforts being put in rescuing them, however, at this point, there is only a slim chance of their survival.

The NDRF divers reported foul odor. “That is not a good sign,” says Santosh Singh, NDRF Assistant Commandant, who is heading the rescue work. While he declines to comment further, NDRF personnel discuss that the “foul odor” could indicate that the miners are dead and the bodies are beginning to decompose.

The state government was unprepared for a disaster like this and the technical reasons in relation to the capacity of the pumps needed and their final delivery as per the demands show the ineffectiveness and the unwillingness of the state and the center to act promptly in situations like these.

Former NDRF DIG Navin Kumar Bhatnagar said the state government wasn’t prepared, but added that the NDRF was “very much prepared”. He said it was possible to rescue the trapped miners “if the proper pumping system is provided here”.

Presently members from the Indian Navy, Fire Services Odisha, Coal India Limited, NDRF, and the SDRF are involved in the rescue operations. However, the water level in the mine has proved to be the biggest hindrance in the rescue operations. As of latest, No trace of miners was found even after 9,00,000 liters of water was pumped out.

The owner of the mine, Jrin Shullet, has been arrested and is facing various charges including causing death by negligence and mining without permission.

Shullet is listed as a coal miner in the ‘Directory of Establishments’ in Meghalaya’s Sixth Economic Census 2013 for establishments having eight or more workers. In Narwan, however, no one knows how much he earned from the Ksan mine, which is about an hour away by road, or whether he was running mines elsewhere, too.

“Jrin has been mining coal for years, even after the ban because mining is a good source of income in the Jaintia hills,” says Shullet’s elder brother Korin, a laborer who is now unemployed. “Apart from his wife and four children, he was financially supporting the families of 20 relatives,” he says.

But at the same time, officials say, Shullet did not provide the workers that he employed any safety equipment and insurance cover, or put in place a compensatory mechanism in case of accidents.

He was operating with an accomplice named James Sukhlain who is absconding. He worked as his manager and it is through him that he was able to access the public land which was in another village’s area and controlled by the community.

The families of the trapped miners have all but given up hope and are now waiting to acquire their bodies to perform the last ritual rights. The word ‘change’ can only exist in our Indian minds with its paradoxical connotations.

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