Meghalaya’s Coal Politics: A Cocktail of Death, Money and Votes

The politics over the illegal coal mines of Meghalaya. 

Updated09 Apr 2019, 03:17 PM IST
3 min read

Cameraperson: Tridip K Mandal
Video Editor: Puneet Bhatia

On 13 December 2018, 15 miners found themselves trapped in a rat-hole coal mine, deep inside the jungle in East Jaintia Hills, Meghalaya. The mining incident was unlike any other, since the miners were trapped in a flooded ‘illegal’ rat-hole mine in Ksan.

The accident exposed the coal mining racket in the East Jaintia Hills, despite a ban on rat-hole mining enforced by the National Green Tribunal in 2014.

“We got the information because some of the trapped miners were from Garo Hills. Some workers who managed to escape were also from Garo Hills. They managed to reach their home. They informed their local MLA about the incident.”
Sannio Siangshai, Journalist,The Shillong Times
Rescue operations at the Ksan mine in East Jaintia Hills, Meghalaya. 
Rescue operations at the Ksan mine in East Jaintia Hills, Meghalaya. 
(Photo: The Quint)

What is A Rat-Hole Mine?

The seam of coal in Meghalaya is between 2 to 4 metres in width. To reach that layer of coal under the earth’s surface, a vertical pit is dug up. A rat-hole mine has a depth of about 500 feet. The miners who extract the coal using pickaxe have to climb down 500 feet into the mine. Once at the bottom, they crawl horizontally for about 500 feet. It is very risky because the miners can hit another abandoned mine which can collapse, or a mine which is full of water, leading to flooding.

An abandoned rat-hole mine in East Jaintia Hills. 
An abandoned rat-hole mine in East Jaintia Hills. 
(Photo: The Quint)

Whose Coal Is It?

According to the 6th Schedule of the Constitution in Meghalaya, the community has ownership over its land and a say over the nature of its use.

“The mindset of the people, the attitude of the people here in East Jaintia Hills is that they want to do mining. They think that mining is their only livelihood. There is also in the mindset of the people (sic) that “this is my land. I have the right to do anything with my land.”
Sannio Siangshai, Journalist, The Shillong Times

But the National Green Tribunal in 2014 found the practice of coal mining extremely harmful for the ecology of the area, where the water bodies and rivers downstream were turning acidic. It was also unsafe for miners and a risk to human lives.

Coal Politics

In 2014 when mining was banned in Meghalaya, coal production stood at about 6 million tonnes annually. For the stipulated 9 metric tonnes of coal transported by every truck, the state was earning about Rs 6,700 on a daily basis. Thousands of trucks were transporting coal daily. And each truck was loaded with almost 30 metric tonnes of coal, almost three times the stipulated amount. Revenue leakage resulted in huge profits and easy money.

With the ban imposed, the easy money stopped flowing in and most political parties wanted the ban lifted.

The Shillong Times report on political blame game around coal mining. 
The Shillong Times report on political blame game around coal mining. 
(Photo: The Quint)
“In the last Assembly elections the NPP, the BJP promised the people that coal mining ban will be lifted in 180 days. Now the government led by NPP in the state has not done that.”
Sannio Siangshai, Journalist, The Shillong Times
“They are taking up the issue of coal because there is money in this business. They need it for the elections.”
Agnes Kharshiing, HumanRights and RTI Activist

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Published: 09 Apr 2019, 07:52 AM IST
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