A dark truth
Meghalaya government ignores Central mining laws; communities lose coal to mining mafias
"( 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.
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