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Dissatisfied with Meghalaya govt steps to rescue miners, need urgent operations: SC

New Delhi: The Supreme Court Thursday expressed dissatisfaction over the steps taken by the Meghalaya government to rescue 15 miners trapped in an illegal coal mine since December 13, saying "prompt, immediate and effective" operation is needed to rescue them as it was a matter of life and death.

"Every minute counts" for those trapped there for almost three weeks, it said.

A bench comprising Justices A K Sikri and S Abdul Nazeer asked Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing the Centre, to apprise it by Friday the steps which the government intends to take in the matter.

"For people who are trapped there, every minute counts," the bench said. "Immediate steps are needed".

"As the Union, you should do something now. Either you take the help of Army, which has not been done yet. They (Army) are ready and they have volunteered also," the bench told Mehta.

The rat-hole mine, atop a hillock fully covered with trees in Meghalaya's East Jaintia Hills district, was flooded when water from the nearby Lytein river gushed into it, trapping 15 miners.

Rat-hole mining involves digging of narrow tunnels, usually three-four feet high, for workers to enter and extract coal. The horizontal tunnels are often termed "rat holes" as each just about fits one person.

During the hearing, the Solicitor General told the bench that several members of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) were working at the site and instead of the Army, the government has sent Navy personnel there as the mine was submerged in water.

"72 members of NDRF are already there but still no result," the bench observed, adding, "Why cannot you take help of the Army? He (petitioner) says that water pumps were sent to Thailand. Why cannot it (pumps) be used here also?".

The petitioner has said in his plea that Kirloskar Brothers Ltd (KBL) had offered high-powered water pumps and given technical support to the Royal Thai government in June-July 2018 for the operation to rescue a football team trapped inside a cave system in Thailand.

KBL had then offered to provide four specialised high capacity Autoprime de-watering pumps, which were kept ready at Kirloskarvadi plant in Maharashtra to be airlifted to Thailand.

Mehta, while maintaining that the petition seeking urgent steps for rescue of these 15 persons was not adversarial, said he would take instructions in the matter.

He said that the Union coal minister had held a meeting, which was attended by the chief minister of Meghalaya, and a nodal officer has been appointed.

The bench, while issuing notice to the Centre on the petition, said, "We have requested solicitor general Tushar Mehta to look into it with regard to the urgency involved as it is a question of life and death."

The counsel appearing for the state said adequate steps have been taken and besides 72 NDRF personnel, members of state disaster response force, the Navy, fire department and Coal India Ltd were also involved in the rescue operations.

The bench noted in its order that the court was of the view that "prompt, immediate and effective operation is required for rescue of these miners".

At the outset, the counsel appearing for Meghalaya said they have already taken steps for rescue of these persons.

"What steps have you taken? These miners are trapped there for long time. You may have taken steps but they are still trapped. You need some support from the Central government," the bench said.

To this, the state's counsel said the Centre was also lending support to them in the rescue operation.

"Then why you are not successful yet? Is it because of the water?," the bench asked.

The state's counsel said the illegal mine where these 15 persons were trapped was connected with a nearby river.

"We are not satisfied (with steps taken for rescue). It is a question of life and death. What has happened in the last so many days we do not know. No matter whether they (trapped persons) are all dead, some alive, few dead or all alive, they should have been taken out by now. We pray to God that they all are alive," the bench observed and asked the petitioner's counsel to call a law officer of the Centre in the court.

Senior advocate Anand Grover, appearing for petitioner Aditya N Prasad, told the bench that an adjoining mine was connected with river and the authorities were using only 25 horsepower pumps to flush out the water.

He said KBL had sent 100 horsepower water pumps during the rescue operation in Thailand last year.

"We need a cental coordinating machinery to deal with such situations," Grover said, claiming that authorities have not taken appropriate steps.

He claimed that persons, who have no prior experience in dealing with these situations, have been sent for rescue operation in Meghalaya.

The plea has also sought a direction to the Centre and other authorities concerned to prepare a standard operating procedure (SOP) for rescue operations in "mines and other similar conditions".

It has sought directions to the Centre and the state to utilise the services of the technical wing of the Indian Armed Forces -- the Indian Army, Indian Navy and Indian Air Force -- in the operation immediately to rescue the 15 miners.

Family members of at least seven trapped miners had already given up hope to rescue them alive and requested the government to retrieve the bodies for last rites.

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