Coal Mining: Bare Hills and Imperiled Lives

Bonnie Konyak 
Dimapur | December 23 

The roar of heavy engines sounds night and day, breaking the now-forgotten silence of what once were the lush-green hills of Kongan village, under Mon district. The riches buried in these hills have been discovered and now exploitation follows with scant regard for the damage inflicted with the excavation of precious coal.

For the people of Kongan village, the land owners, the precious fuel source is a boon from God which has provided them with a source of income. With agriculture as their main and usually their only source of livelihood, people from this village struggle to provide education and medical attention for their families. Things are changing for the villagers with scores of people vying for their forest land and ready to pay “good money”. 

“Now I can buy a whole pig for Christmas and even send my children to good schools without worrying too much about how I will pay for their admission” says Acham, a land owner. For Acham and others like him, it is a fair deal because the contractors extracting coal is not actually buying their forest but are getting a good income merely by leasing out their land for a year or two. This way, the villagers believe that their forest and agricultural land will still belong to them after the mining exercise is completed in a few years. 

However, the real story after a few years may be entirely different with the no forest or agricultural land left by the unplanned and unsustainable system of coal mining. The numerous persons involved in mining coal in small pockets across the hillside have caused extensive damage to the forest and vegetation. The entire forests are cleared of trees and with the help of big machines; the soil is turned inside out in search of coal. While the trees will take decades to grow back, the chemical content inherent in the extracted coal, which is dumped on agricultural land, will delay the use of the land by making it infertile. 

In fact, in the open cast system of coal mining, an entire hill is flattened in order to extract the fuel thereby destroying the entire geography of the land. Either way it is doubtful whether these villagers, who are solely dependent on agriculture, will find anything to come back to, after the mining is completed. As one contractor involved in the coal mining says on condition of anonymity, “We are mere business people, we will move to the next hill and the next village when we are done here. But I wonder where the Kongan villagers will grow their crop when all this is over.” 

One problem which is already being faced by the people of the area is the frighteningly dangerous landslides and erosion caused by mining. With trees cleared away, landslides have been taking place with increasing frequency and intensity around the Kongan hills. 

There have also been several cases of coal mine collapsing and mines catching fire though no casualty has been reported from these causes. But there have been several reports of deaths of mine workers caused by exposure to toxic gases in the mines and other cases of sudden and unknown deaths.

In addition to these problems, another threat posed by the mining in this region is the direct and indirect damage to wildlife. The most direct effect on wildlife is destruction or displacement of species in areas of excavation with mobile species like game animals, birds, and predators leaving these areas. Wildlife like invertebrates, reptiles, burrowing rodents and small mammals follow in tow. If streams, lakes, ponds or marshes are filled or drained, fish, aquatic invertebrates, and amphibians are destroyed while water bodies around mining areas also becomes contaminated. Food source for predators are reduced by destruction of these land and water species.

Though the residents of this area may not be fully aware of the hazards involved, they do know that some compromises are being made. However, in the absence of any other source of income, mining operation in their land is their only option. Acham puts it appropriately when he says, “When my stomach is growling and my pocket is empty, I have little option. I guess I will have to think about tomorrow when tomorrow arrives”.  

Women find ways to make income
Jhum field harvest is over but now the women folk of Kongan and Naginimora areas are rushing to the coal mines to meticulously collect pieces of coal that lay discarded in the area of operation. The owners of the mines might find the job of collecting every small piece of coal scattered by the heavy machines onerous, but for these women with their baskets, they mean some extra money to spend during the festival. 

Everyday, with the permission of the contractor in concern, a number of women spend their day and sometimes nights, collecting coal debris into their own neat piles. With some luck, the pile will weigh a ton or two in a few days which is sold for Rs. 1200 to 1500 to interested persons. The work is labourious and time-consuming and the women often have to wade through muddy coal fields for hours, but the reward is plenty. 

Anon is used to hard work and does not mind the days she spends in the coal mines, but the work is harsh on her back sometimes. She also dislikes the chill when she spends the nights in the area of mining, but Anon is reluctant to complain. “This work earns me more money than I could ever earn from my field or any other daily wage job, so I am more than happy” she says while her callous hands unconsciously massages her.  

(This news feature is produced in fulfillment of a Media Fellowship with the National Foundation for India)