Meghalaya’s coal mining disaster

Lessons for Nagaland’s ‘Carbon Aspiration’

On December 13, 2018, ‘22 miners went down below to 380 feet’ below to extract coal in a so-called ‘rat-hole’ mining on Meghalaya’s East Jaintia Hills Ksan area. After a sudden deluge, 15 miners were trapped, while 5 miners had a miraculous escape. The attention of the nation has been riveted with the rescue operation since then. Besides a possible human tragedy, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had already imposed a fine of Rs. 100 crore on the state for not effectively enforcing the ban on coal mining in operation since 2014.

The sight of such large coal deposits in Ksan area despite the ban could “come as a jolt” considering the NGT’s ban, Abhishek Saha reported in The Indian Express. A cave expert in Meghalaya told a news agency that the present disaster could have been prevented if the state mining policy was in place. Alleged collusion between politicians, the state machinery and mine owners are attributed for its continuation.

As the event unfolds, the incident should be taken as a timely wake-up call for the policymakers as well as other stakeholders in the state of Nagaland. Along with oil, such explorations, termed by noted Naga political anthropologist Dolly Kikon as ‘Carbon Aspirations’ has had been the part of Naga landscape for many years.

A thematic report by Government of India, United Nations Development Programme and State’s Planning and Coordination Department in 2017 informed that coal mining in Nagaland started way back in 1822 by the erstwhile East India Company till the late 1960s, before abandonment. Rat Hole Mining (RHM) was a predominant mining technique.

The Minister of Railways and Coal, Piyush Goyal in a written reply to Rajya Sabha on January 5, 2018, informed that Nagaland has an estimated total of 410.45 Million Tonnes of coal spread over five coalfields as per the Geological Survey of India (GSI) report.

On paper, the Nagaland Coal Policy was formulated in 2006 with the objective of “systematic development with the objective of cracking down on rampant illegal mining in some places.” The Nagaland Coal Policy (1st amendment), 2015 and the Nagaland Coal Mining Rules (1st amendment) Rules have been enforced throughout Nagaland thereafter.

Under the policy, the Coal Prospecting Licenses (CPL) and Coal Mining Lease (CML) are issued by the state’s Geology and Mining Department. However, illegal and unplanned extraction of coal are allegedly being carried out rampantly.

Anna-Maria Toastbread, a Masaryk University scholar, after her research in Mon’s Tiru area stated in an article that even though CPL and CML are limited only for Nagaland citizens, there was no single Naga mine owner in that area. The aforesaid GoI/GoN/UNDP report too stated that employment generation through coal mining for the local community is also negligible, as the contractors, for the most part, bring in labourers from outside the village or from outside the state.

An overwhelming 79% respondents of a poll conducted by The Morung Express in August 2018 called for the Government’s strong measures against rampant coal mining citing lack of proper regulation and scientific exploration as well as the adverse environmental degradation as common reasons. Similar reasons were highlighted by a Nagaland Pollution Control Board’s study on coal mining. Any discussions on coal invariably hover to its adverse impact, despite the immediate economic benefits.

The GoI/GoN/UNDP report also observed that while communities are aware and have observed the harmful effects of unscientific coal mining, they cannot comprehend the long-term impacts in totality. No post-mining reclamation or rehabilitation practices are adopted while the role of the Village Council in regulating and monitoring mining activities is minimal and almost nonexistent, it indicted.

Against the backdrop, the majority of the forests in Nagaland are private-owned – either by by village community, clan or individuals, ipso facto conferring more or less independence over their uses. However, its impact affects the community as a whole – a threat to the flora, fauna as well as the people, especially those living in the vicinity of the mines.

Appropriate policy and regulatory regimes, not symbolic, is the imperative for a long-term sustainable and scientific exploration of innate natural resources. Else, the ‘Carbon Aspirations’ could usurp the Naga landscape and became a political as well as an environmental nightmare. The Meghalaya incident is an opportune reminder for course correction.