Hopes fade for 15 work­ers trapped in il­le­gal In­dian mine

Tun­nels in the ‘rat hole’ coal ex­trac­tion site filled with wa­ter on Dec. 13

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY JOANNA SLATER AND SANNIO SIANGSHAI [email protected]­post.com Siangshai re­ported from Jowai, In­dia.

new delhi — To reach the coal de­posits in re­mote north­east In­dia, work­ers dig shafts straight down into the earth, then ex­ca­vate a labyrinth of nar­row, hor­i­zon­tal tun­nels. Min­ers work in the pitch black, hunched over, in thou­sands of these “rat hole” mines — ev­ery one of them il­le­gal.

On Dec. 13, wa­ter flooded a net­work of tun­nels in such a mine in the eastern part of Megha­laya state, trap­ping 15 men and prompt­ing a res­cue at­tempt that has grown in­creas­ingly des­per­ate.

A month af­ter the ac­ci­dent, the fate of the min­ers re­mains un­known. No blue­print ex­ists of the tun­nels, which are now filled with frigid wa­ter from the nearby Lytein river.

Last sum­mer, when 12 boys and their soc­cer coach were trapped in a flooded cave in Thai­land, the dra­matic res­cue op­er­a­tion riv­eted that na­tion and the world. The min­ing ac­ci­dent in Megha­laya — a thinly pop­u­lated state north of Bangladesh — ini­tially drew lit­tle at­ten­tion, and the res­cue ef­fort has been plagued by de­lays and dif­fi­cul­ties.

A team of In­dian navy divers is at the site. But the depth of the wa­ter in the mine’s main shaft has pre­vented them from ex­plor­ing the tun­nels. The 350-foot shaft was filled half­way up with wa­ter, and de­spite the use of pumps, divers have been un­able to op­er­ate.

“There is no sub­stan­tial de­crease” in the wa­ter level to date, said S.K. Singh, an as­sis­tant com­man­dant with the Na­tional Dis­as­ter Re­sponse Force, who is part of the res­cue ef­fort. He de­clined to com­ment on the min­ers’ chances of sur­vival, say­ing that the gov­ern­ment is mak­ing “its best ef­forts” and that “we are still hope­ful.”

The ac­ci­dent in the East Jain­tia Hills dis­trict might have gone un­de­tected were it not for a hand­ful of sur­vivors. One 22-year-old told an In­dian tele­vi­sion sta­tion that the coal in the mine was “soft,” a sign of wa­ter seep­age. Just as he ex­ited with a load of coal, he said, he heard wa­ter gush­ing into the tun­nels. “All min­ers knew the mine was un­safe and that wa­ter might come in any mo­ment,” he said.

Justina Dkhar is the mother of two men from the nearby vil­lage of Lumthari who were trapped in the mine. She said her sons, ages 20 and 22, did not nor­mally work in the coal mine but took the job to earn more money ahead of Christ­mas. “Now I only hope to re­trieve their bod­ies,” Dkhar said. Her 22-year-old nephew was also among those trapped.

The sit­u­a­tion has placed a harsh spot­light on the min­ing in­dus­try in Megha­laya, which draws poor mi­grant work­ers from the neigh­bor­ing state of As­sam. In 2014, In­dia’s na­tional en­vi­ron­men­tal court out­lawed coal min­ing in Megha­laya, cit­ing a dev­as­tat­ing in­crease in pol­lu­tion in rivers. But the pro­hi­bi­tion on min­ing ap­pears to ex­ist mostly on paper.

B.P. Katakey, a re­tired judge, led a fact-find­ing mis­sion to the state last year at the or­der of the en­vi­ron­men­tal court, known as the Na­tional Green Tri­bunal. His com­mit­tee found that there were more than 24,000 mines in the state. Dur­ing his visit, he saw piles of freshly mined coal stacked on both sides of a road.

Mine own­ers do “ab­so­lutely nothing” for the safety of their work­ers, Katakey said in an in­ter­view. Mean­while, wide­spread min­ing has pol­luted the state’s rivers and ren­dered them acidic. In cer­tain ar­eas, the pH level in rivers is less than 3, Katakey said, a highly acidic read­ing. (The ideal pH level for drink­ing wa­ter is 7.)

The state ad­min­is­tra­tion blames a lack of man­power for its in­abil­ity to en­force the min­ing ban. But the in­dus­try also ben­e­fits from the sup­port of elected of­fi­cials, some of whom own mines, said Pa­tri­cia Mukhim, ed­i­tor of the Shil­long Times, a news­pa­per in the state cap­i­tal.

“This is the po­lit­i­cal econ­omy of the state,” she said. “All elec­tions are funded by coal money.” In Novem­ber, two fe­male ac­tivists who trav­eled to the East Jain­tia Hills dis­trict to in­ves­ti­gate il­le­gal min­ing ac­tiv­i­ties were at­tacked.

Im­me­di­ately af­ter the Dec. 13 mine flood, a local dis­as­ter man­age­ment of­fi­cial re­quested help from his na­tional coun­ter­part. How­ever, he framed the mis­sion as re­cov­er­ing “dead bod­ies” rather than as a res­cue at­tempt, ac­cord­ing to court doc­u­ments. The lack of ur­gency per­sisted for nearly two weeks, the records show.

On Dec. 25, Rahul Gandhi, the leader of In­dia’s main op­po­si­tion party, tweeted about the min­ers while tak­ing a dig at Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi. In­dia’s Supreme Court or­dered the state gov­ern­ment to pro­vide reg­u­lar up­dates on the sta­tus of the op­er­a­tion.

The re­mote­ness of the mine and the depth of the shaft have hin­dered the res­cue ef­forts. It was only re­cently that high­ca­pac­ity 100-horse­power wa­ter pumps were suc­cess­fully used in the mine.

More than 120 peo­ple are now at the site, in­clud­ing per­son­nel from dis­as­ter man­age­ment agen­cies and ex­perts from a ma­jor state-con­trolled coal com­pany.

But ab­sent any signs that the min­ers have found an air pocket, hopes have dwin­dled. When Mukhim, the news­pa­per ed­i­tor, vis­ited the mine last month, she be­gan to cry. “It looks very dan­ger­ous. It’s pitch dark down there,” she said. “It is a hole of death.”

SANNIO SIANGSHAI FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

More than 120 peo­ple are now at the mine site, in the In­dian state of Megha­laya, af­ter a slow start to the res­cue op­er­a­tion. De­spite the use of pumps, the depth of the wa­ter in the mine’s main shaft has pre­vented navy divers from ex­plor­ing the net­work of tun­nels.

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