A dark truth

Megha­laya gov­ern­ment ig­nores Cen­tral min­ing laws; com­mu­ni­ties lose coal to min­ing mafias

Down to Earth - - COVER STORY -

"( Be­cause of ban on rathole min­ing) those en­gaged in min­ing for more than half a cen­tury stand up­rooted"

"Com­mu­ni­ties didn't ben­e­fit from rat-hole min­ing. Dis­trict coun­cils, state and Cen­tre could have set up a mech­a­nism for shar­ing prof­its with them" Court lawyer

RES­I­DENTS OF Megha­laya’s Umkyr­pong vil­lage avoid any con­ver­sa­tion on coal and forests with strangers. “You come to dor­bar shnong (tra­di­tional vil­lage assem­bly) and we will tell you ev­ery­thing,” a res­i­dent tells Down To Earth. The 200-odd fam­i­lies in this tiny vil­lage in East Jain­tia Hills dis­trict claim that they own a hill. They had tra­di­tion­ally de­pended on its 70 hectares (ha) for­est for fire­wood and other pro­duce and grew paddy on parts of it with ap­proval from the vil­lage coun­cil. In 2010, some peo­ple from the vil­lage ap­proached the Jain­tia Hills Au­ton­o­mous Dis­trict Coun­cil (adc) for in­di­vid­ual pat­tas (land ti­tles) over the for­est. adc is a demo­crat­i­cally elected body that rep­re­sents tribal peo­ple in states like Megha­laya, gov­erned un­der the Sixth Sched­ule of the Con­sti­tu­tion. The vil­lage coun­cil filed a pe­ti­tion re­quest­ing the adc not to is­sue pat­tas over com­mu­nity land.The adc, how­ever, is­sued pat­tas over the en­tire for­est to 13 in­di­vid­u­als, say­ing it re­ceived a let­ter from the vil­lage coun­cil with­draw­ing its ob­jec­tions.

In re­sponse to queries un­der the Right To In­for­ma­tion (rti) Act filed by the vil­lage coun­cil, adc pro­duced ap­proval let­ters and re­ceipt of the no­tice of ti­tles from the vil­lage coun­cil bear­ing sig­na­tures of its head­man and sec­re­tary.The vil­lage coun­cil al­leges that the doc­u­ments were forged. Every­body in the vil­lage knows that the then head­man Pham­les Ma­nar is il­lit­er­ate.rti re­sponses re­vealed that on the same day the ti­tles were is­sued, the 13 in­di­vid­u­als had sold the for­est to Donush Siang­shai, a coal baron.It did not take much time for Umkyr­pong res­i­dents to re­alise that their for­est has been grabbed for coal min­ing.

Umkyr­pong vil­lage coun­cil then moved the High Court of Megha­laya against adc of­fi­cials, the 13 land buy­ers and Siang­shai.On May 21 this year, the court termed the land­hold­ing cer­tifi­cates il­le­gal.

Unkyr­pong is not the only vil­lage where coal barons have grabbed com­mu­nity land. The gen­e­sis of such con­flicts lies in the state’s vast re­serves of fine qual­ity coal—576 mil­lion tonnes that alone can drive the state’s econ­omy for 10 years—spread­ing hori- zon­tally un­der the hills in the form of nar­row seams. Ex­tract­ing coal from th­ese seams through open cast min­ing is eco­nom­i­cally un­vi­able. This gave birth to an in­dige­nous method, rat-hole min­ing. Peo­ple dig up to 50-me­tre-deep pits on the hills till the coal seam is reached. From there hor­i­zon­tal tun­nels are made through which a miner crawls to dig out coal. Till re­cently, the state and the Cen­tre had ex­empted such min­ing from any reg­u­la­tion be­cause of its ap­par­ent small-scale na­ture and the tra­di­tional rights of in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties over their land and re­sources.

Coal mafias and the elites in the com­mu­nity took ad­van­tage of this ex­emp­tion. Coal pro­duc­tion in the state in­creased from 3.3 mil­lion tonnes in 1995-96 to about 6 mil­lion tonnes in 2009-10, show data based on roy­alty re­ceived by the gov­ern­ment. Trade in­sid­ers say the ac­tual pro­duc­tion could be three times more.

Most peo­ple in East Jain­tia Hills are farm­ers. They had stayed away from rat-hole coal min­ing due to lack of cap­i­tal and be­cause of its labour-in­ten­sive and hazardous na­ture, ac­cord­ing to the Sta­tus of Adi­va­sis/In­dige­nous Peo­ples (saip) Min­ing Se­ries on Megha­laya, a 2014 re­port co­or­di­nated by a group of schol­ars work­ing on tribal rights across the coun­try.

“Since the state does not have proper records of land ti­tles or deeds and cus­tom­ary prac­tices, du­bi­ous land deals be­came the or­der of the day. Com­mu­nity-owned land be­came easy tar­gets,” says H H Mohrmen, a pas­tor and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist in Jowai. In­di­vid­u­als and com­mu­ni­ties sell­ing off land to coal mafias, will­ingly or un­will­ingly, is a well-known prac­tice in the state. “In many cases, the min­ers just buy coal be­low the land by mak­ing a one-time pay­ment and tell the land own­ers that the top soil be­longs to them,” says a Jowai-based jour­nal­ist. This led to mas­sive con­flicts over land in heav­ily coal-mined ar­eas like East Jain­tia Hills.

“Till 10 years ago, it was a peace­ful re­gion. Now, it has be­come a war-zone,” says a po­lice of­fi­cial at Kh­le­ri­aht po­lice di­vi­sion. Fol­low­ing the or­ders of the Megha­laya high court, three bat­tal­ions of po­lice have been de­ployed inside the forests in coal-bear­ing ar­eas.

Rat-hole min­ing had another down­side. Ear­lier this year, the All Di­masa Stu­dents’ Union of the ad­join­ing Dima Hasao dis­trict of Assam filed a pe­ti­tion be­fore the Na­tional Green Tri­bunal (ngt) that acidic wa­ter from the mines and coal dump yards in East Jain­tia Hills was pol­lut­ing rivers down­stream. Sev­eral stud­ies, in­clud­ing those by gov­ern­ment agen­cies, es­tab­lished this, fol­low­ing which in April this year ngt banned rat-hole min­ing.It has asked the state to pro­pose a sci­en­tific min­ing plan for coal.

The ini­tial re­ac­tion of coal barons and sev­eral politi­cians was that the ngt or­der in­fringes on the cus­tom­ary prac­tices of com­mu­ni­ties. Vincent Pala, an MP from Megha­laya, in­tro­duced a pri­vate bill in the Lok Sabha in July this year that sought lim­it­ing ju­ris­dic­tion of ngt. Pala ar­gued that the ban on rathole min­ing has jeop­ar­dised liveli­hoods of peo­ple.

But the fact is all th­ese years the state gov­ern­ment had il­le­gally al­lowed min­ing in tribal ar­eas.

Wil­ful blind­ness

Un­like Na­ga­land ,where Ar­ti­cle 371-A states that na­tional laws con­cern­ing land and its re­sources would not ap­ply to the state un­less the Assem­bly rat­i­fies it, Megha­laya, a Sixth Sched­ule state, can be ex­empted from na­tional laws only if the Pres­i­dent is­sues a no­ti­fi­ca­tion to this ef­fect, says Shilpa Cho­han, a Supreme Court lawyer.

But Megha­laya never sought Pres­i­dent’s no­ti­fi­ca­tion. “With­out it, all na­tional laws re­lated to min­ing, en­vi­ron­ment and labour are ap­pli­ca­ble to the state,” says Cho­han. As per the Coal Na­tion­al­i­sa­tion Act, coal is un­der the Cen­tre’s con­trol and can be ex­tracted only after re­ceiv­ing min­ing leases from the state gov­ern­ment and for­est and en­vi­ron­ment clear­ances from the Union Min­istry of En­vi­ron­ment and Forests. In re­sponse to queries un­der the Right To In­for­ma­tion (rti) Act by Shil­long-based non-profit Sam­rak­shan Trust, the state gov­ern­ment and Union coal min­istry ad­mit­ted that all na­tional min­ing laws were ap­pli­ca­ble in Megha­laya.

While the state kept its eyes shut from reg­u­lat­ing min­ing, it did not use pro­vi­sions of the Sixth Sched­ule to pro­tect com­mu­ni­ties from land alien­ation by the pow­er­ful peo­ple and the non-na­tives nor did it pro­vide them ben­e­fits from coal min­ing. “The in­come gen­er­ated from coal min­ing and its dis­tri­bu­tion re­mains highly skewed, ”says the saip re­port. Many vil­lages do not have ba­sic fa­cil­i­ties like elec­tric­ity, roads and safe drink­ing wa­ter, it notes.

Coal dump­ing yard of min­ing baron Donush Siang­shai in Ladrym­bai vil­lage, East Jain­tia Hills dis­trict of Megha­laya

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