TRAPPED IN A RAT-HOLE

In­dia’s in­dif­fer­ent at­ti­tude to­wards il­le­gal min­ing ac­counts for a greater tragedy

Millennium Post - - Front Page - B SIVARAMAN

It is al­most a month since tragedy struck the Jain­tia Hills of Megha­laya when 15 min­ers got trapped in a rat-hole mine that got flooded from a nearby river. The res­cue work­ers from the state and the na­tional dis­as­ter man­age­ment au­thor­i­ties from the Navy, Army and even the Air Force as well as ex­perts from CIL and Odisha are still work­ing day and night. The en­tire na­tion – and even the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity – hope des­per­ately for a mir­a­cle and wish them luck.

The larger tragedy is that the mighty In­dian state it­self is trapped in a rat-hole of cal­lous­ness and in­dif­fer­ence. Rat-hole min­ing is il­le­gal, un­sci­en­tific and haz­ardous. It is ram­pant in Megha­laya. The Na­tional Green Tri­bunal (NGT) in its in­terim order of 17 April 2014 said: “[A sci­en­tific study] shows an alarm­ing sit­u­a­tion ex­ist­ing in the state of Megha

laya, es­pe­cially in the Jain­tia Hills wherein rat-hole min­ing has been in prac­tice for a

long time. We are of the con­sid­ered view that such il­le­gal and un­sci­en­tific method can never be al­lowed in the in­ter­est of main­tain­ing the eco­log­i­cal bal­ance of the coun­try and safety of the em­ploy­ees”. The NGT fur­ther di­rected: “Ac­cord­ingly, we di­rect the Chief Sec­re­tary, Gov­ern­ment of Megha­laya and the Di­rec­tor Gen­eral of Po­lice, the State of Megha­laya to en­sure that rat-hole min­ing is stopped forth­with through­out the State of Megha­laya and any il­le­gal trans­port of coal shall not take place un­til fur­ther or­ders passed by this tri­bunal”.

As NGT has the sta­tus of a Green Tri­bunal of the Supreme Court, this is vir­tu­ally a ban on rat-hole min­ing in Megha­laya. Far from en­forc­ing the ban, the au­thor­i­ties con­tin­ued to re­main in­dif­fer­ent. In its fi­nal or­ders dated 25 March 2015, the NGT openly in­dicted the Megha­laya gov­ern­ment: “It is in­dis­putable that or­ders of the tribu-

nal have been vi­o­lated with­out ex­cep­tion”.

The rul­ing Bjp-na­tional Peo­ple’s Party (NPP) coali­tion, while in op­po­si­tion ear­lier, de­manded that the Con­gress gov­ern­ment use Megha­laya’s sta­tus as a Sixth Sched­ule state to get the NGT ban lifted. It made this the cen­tral is­sue in the polls as well. The min­ing mafia could defy the NGT or­ders with im­punity be­cause of pa­tron­age from pow­er­ful po­lit­i­cal forces across the spec­trum. About 30 per cent of the 374 can­di­dates in the Megha­laya As­sem­bly elec­tions held on 27 Fe­bru­ary 2018 were ei­ther owner of mines or had stakes in the largely un­reg­u­lated coal min­ing and trans­porta­tion in­dus­tries.

Im­me­di­ately af­ter the tragedy struck, the NDRF, Navy, Army and Air force units were pressed into ser­vice though be­lat­edly. Still, the lo­gis­tics sup­port from the state and the Cen­tre did not come about. The

Supreme Court also in­dicted the Megha­laya gov­ern­ment over this cal­lous­ness. In its af­fi­davit filed be­fore the apex court, the Megha­laya gov­ern­ment it­self ad­mit­ted that it could pro­cure only two pumps to pump out the wa­ter. While the big farm­ers us­ing 10 HP pump sets for ir­ri­ga­tion in the rest of In­dia can pump out 96,000 litres of wa­ter per hour, for some in­ex­pli­ca­ble rea­son the Megha­laya gov­ern­ment, in its af­fi­davit, claims that they could pump out only 1,08,000

litres of wa­ter on the se­cond day of the dis­as­ter. On third and fourth days, 1,68,000 and 1,44,000 litres of wa­ter were pumped out but still, the wa­ter

level had not re­ceded be­cause this shaft was in­ter­linked with some 20 other in­un­dated shafts.

The NDRF team ar­rived on 20 De­cem­ber, one full week af­ter the dis­as­ter. Only af­ter 13 days, the state gov­ern­ment ap­proached the Cen­tre with a re­quest for 100 HP pumps.

Fi­nally, it was Odisha Fire Ser­vice which, in a praise­wor­thy ges­ture, vol­un­tar­ily came for­ward to help with 100 HP pump sets on 29 De­cem­ber and IAF air­lifted them. In­dian Navy divers came af­ter 17 days but ex­pressed in­abil­ity to dive 320 feet as they did not have the nec­es­sary equip­ment. The pumps also mal­func­tioned; the diesel pumps could not be used and the near­est power line was 5 kms away and by 5 Jan­uary 2019 only 10,00,000 litres of wa­ter could be pumped out cu­mu­la­tively!

This is the record of the In­dian state, which pats it­self on the back for car­ry­ing out “sur­gi­cal strikes” in­side Pak­istan. This is the com­pe­tence of rulers who erect 597 feet statue for Pa­tel but could not mo­bilise divers with suit­able equip­ment to dive up to 320 feet!

Il­le­gal min­ing is a panin­dian phe­nom­e­non. Ac­cord­ing to the MB Shah Com­mis­sion re­port, 94 of the 192 iron ore min­ing leases in Odisha did not have the manda­tory en­vi­ron­men­tal clear­ances, and of the 96 that had them, 75 had mined far be­yond their per­mit­ted lev­els over the past sev­eral years. There was a change of gov­ern­ment in Kar­nataka due to il­le­gal min­ing and a CM in Jhark­hand had to step down. Kar­nataka and Goa alone have lost an es­ti­mated Rs 51,000 crore rev­enue in one decade due to il­le­gal min­ing. Lakhs of hectares of land and lakhs of work­ers are in­volved in il­le­gal min­ing. But there are no labour stan­dards or safety reg­u­la­tions.

Hun­dreds of il­le­gal min­ers in Jharia area of Jhark­hand have died due to un­der­ground fire and earth cav­ing in; chromium min­ing in Odisha has taken a toll of hun­dreds of lives, and many maimed work­ers in Mad­hya Pradesh stone quar­ries as­sem­ble like beg­gars to take the money of­fered by their col­leagues on their day of wages. Work­ers in ura­nium min­ing in Jhark­hand and as­bestos min­ing in Cud­da­pah in AP are dy­ing in dozens and among Sa­haria tribes of MP en­tire vil­lages are known as ‘Vil­lages of Wid­ows’ as men in min­ing have died due to TB.

The Min­istry of Mines sends out in­spec­tors num­ber­ing a few. The safety is­sues of min­ing work­ers are not rou­tinely ad­dressed by the labour min­istries. There is a Direc­torate of Min­ing Safety but the catch is that as the pow­ers that usu­ally turn a blind eye to il­le­gal min­ing, such mines do not ex­ist. There is no ques­tion of en­forc­ing any safety stan­dards in them. For in­stance, on the of­fi­cial web­site of the Di­rec­tor Gen­eral of Min­ing Safety, there is not a sin­gle ref­er­ence to rathole min­ing or the Megha­laya tragedy. Such in­dif­fer­ence is a greater tragedy that could pave the way for many more Megha­laya-like tragedies.

(The views ex­pressed are strictly per­sonal)

Hun­dreds of il­le­gal min­ers in Jharia of Jhark­hand have died due to un­der­ground fire and earth cav­ing in; chromium min­ing in Odisha has taken a toll of hun­dreds of lives; work­ers in ura­nium min­ing in Jhark­hand and as­bestos min­ing in Cud­da­pah, AP are dy­ing in dozens

Kar­nataka and Goa alone have lost an es­ti­mated Rs 51,000 crore rev­enue in one decade due to il­le­gal min­ing

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