74 Days and Counting: How We All Have Failed the Trapped Meghalaya Miners

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74 Days and Counting: How We All Have Failed the Trapped Meghalaya Miners

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

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t’s been 74 days and Justina Dkhar, a 45-year-old woman from Lumthari village of Meghalaya’s East Jaintia Hills District, is waiting for some information on her two sons. She knows that the news, when it comes in, is going to be ominous. Her sons Iong, 20, and Nilam, 22, took up work in the rat-hole mines at Ksan, 15 kilometres away from home, so that they could earn some extra cash before Christmas. Little did they know that the darkness inside the mine would swallow them.

The Dkhar brothers and their 22-year-old cousin crawled inside the 320 feet-deep coal mine along with 12 other miners on December 13, only to be trapped inside after water gushed in. Since then, the rescue mission has been able to spot two decomposing bodies, but only been able to retrieve one. Though last month the state authorities claimed that the rescue might be in vain, since the miners might have already died, the Supreme Court has ordered that the search should continue. For the Navy divers in search of the miners, the search still goes on.

The Supreme Court has asked the rescuers to keep looking, saying miracles happen. But with each passing day the chance of a miracle diminishes. That said, one cannot overlook the lackadaisical response to the tragedy by the government which was on a break for Christmas and New Year holidays. It was only a week after the tragedy that rescue ops gathered steam. On December 30, almost two weeks since the incident, a retired official of Coal India Ltd told ANI that pumps to pull out the water from the mine had arrived at the site but generators had not. Over 200 rescuers from the Navy, National Disaster Response Force, and the fire services were trying to drain out water from the flooded mine, and it still seemed like an uphill task.  

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The National Green Tribunal banned rat-hole mining in Meghalaya, calling it unscientific and citing ecological hazards.

Image Credits: Getty Images

After all, the workers are trapped inside a narrow mine: Two-to-three-foot-wide tunnels are dug into mountains, and workers, often children, descend hundreds of feet on bamboo ladders to dig out the coal. The narrow alleys allow only one miner to pass at a time and they crawl for five to six hours to extract the coal. These mines are as tiny and suffocating as rat-holes, which is where they get their name from.

The mines, however, are illegal. In April 2014, the National Green Tribunal banned rat-hole mining in Meghalaya, calling it unscientific and citing ecological hazards and unsafe working conditions. Yet there are at least 5,000 illegal rat-hole mines still operational in the state.   

Perhaps our concern is even lesser, considering that the miners come from the Northeast

In fact, on January 6, two more workers died at another mine in East Jaintia Hills. And despite these tragedies, just a few kilometres from where the miners have been trapped, more workers, undeterred by the dangers, continue to crawl inside these death traps. A Citizens’ Report, compiled by activists and journalists and submitted to Supreme Court-appointed amicus curiae Colin Gonsalves, points out, “A worker carries with him a pickaxe, a shovel, and a wheelbarrow. As the cave is dark, he carries a torch… If water has seeped into the cave, the worker can enter only after the water is pumped out. Workers usually enter the cave early in the morning and keep on working until they are tired, or hungry, or when they feel that they have earned enough money for the day.”

The working conditions are dismal and there are no labour laws protecting these miners. The work they take up is illegal, but that does not bother them. What choice do they have anyway? In a land of few employment opportunities, a day inside the mine earns them ₹1,500 to ₹2,000. The other option is to toil on farms or sell vegetables and earn a meagre ₹150 a day.

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Workers usually enter the cave early in the morning and keep on working until they are tired, hungry, or when they feel they have earned enough money for the day.

Image Credits: Getty Images

The miners continue to go back to these hell-holes because they are desperate, and the politicians continue to exploit them because they have vested interests. Just two weeks after the tragedy, Vincent H Pala, Lok Sabha MP from the Shillong Constituency, told the House that rat-hole mining should be regularised. Insensitivity is what we have come to expect from our politicians, but Pala has a lot more at stake.

The Citizens’ Report names Pala, four ministers in the Conrad Sangma-led government, and seven MLAs, and alleges that these politicians or their relatives are coal-mine owners. “This is just a sample from the political class — an independent audit of coal mines will reveal that many bureaucrats, technocrats, and police people are involved in mining business,” according to the report.

“This nexus (between coal mafia and politicians) has not only meant that any existing administrative oversight, tax collection regime, and environmental regulation would be violated but also that orders passed by NGT and consequently the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India would be blatantly violated by the local coal barons with active support of the State government.”

Rat-hole mining in Meghalaya is no secret. In fact, it’s the state’s dirty truth that propels its economy and politics. It’s a glorious racket, and the possible death of 15 miners from the lowest rungs of society will hardly cause a whimper.

But let’s not hold the politicians to a higher standard. Our apathy cannot be ignored; in fact, it only highlights the disregard we have for the lives of the poor in our country.

We care as much about the Meghalaya miners as we do for the workers on construction sites in Mumbai who toil without helmets, or the hapless sanitation workers in Delhi who step into sewers without masks and die from toxic inhalations. Perhaps our concern is even lesser, considering that the miners come from the Northeast – a part of India that many of us sitting in our air-conditioned apartments associate with momos and rock music.

Contrast this with the rescue of the 13 school boys trapped in a cave in Thailand last June. The operation lasted for two weeks and it captured the world’s imagination. We prayed for the Thai boys, tweeted about it, and cheered their rescue. Back home, in an election season, the story of the Meghalaya miners is relegated to the inside pages of national newspapers.

Meanwhile in East Jaintia Hills, Justina Dkhar will make the trek to the mine along with family members of other trapped miners. She has just one hope – the body that is pulled out of the mine next belongs to one of her sons.

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