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Losing lives for livelihoods

Losing lives for livelihoods

Twenty days have gone past since tragedy struck the poor miners hailing from the East Jaintia Hills and West Garo Hills districts of Meghalaya and Assam. Around 15 miners, if not more, continue to be trapped inside a flooded 320-feet coal mine, which collapsed on December 13 due to water gushing through a punctured mine wall. The incident has attracted national attention and exposed Meghalaya's illicit mining racket which has been banned by NGT since 2014, following opposition to the hazardous rat-hole technique and pollution in nearby Kupli river. The ban, clamped on the mining business in public interest, has actually seen stringent opposition from the public itself over the years. Popular belief prevails that Congress's dismal performance in the last assembly elections is due to its failure in effectively challenging the mining ban in NGT and Supreme Court. Further, BJP, in its manifesto, had promised to resolve the illegal mining issue within 180 days of taking office. During poll campaign, Chief Minister Conrad Sangma aggressively advocated Congress's failure in tending to the mining-ban and consequential loss of livelihood for the people. While the contentious and illegal coal mining remains a politically-fuelled agenda, it also circumscribes concerns of the unaccountable loss of human life in pursuit of securing livelihoods. Illicit or not is secondary to the pertinent issue, since the Navy along with NDRF, Odisha Fire Service and Coal India Ltd are jointly overseeing the rescue operation which is practically a race against time that might have been lost already as per the locals who believe that there is no way the stuck miners will be able to make it out alive from the deadly labyrinth. Their efforts to rescue are obstructed by the intricacy of the ordeal. And, if one adeptly understands the rat-hole mining concept, they can then relate to the type of predicament faced by rescuers. The Meghalaya government admits laxity on their account to check the illegal-mining situation in the state and CM Sangma mentioned that appropriate action will be taken in the matter. It is imperative to note that his appropriate action would not just be to prevent illegal-mining and punish the offenders, but rather to challenge the ban, aiming to invoke Para 12 A (b) of the Sixth Schedule through a Presidential notification to exempt the state from the central law related to mining. This way, they can start recuperating from a revenue loss of Rs 416 crore, caused since the NGT ban, and cater to the severely deprived livelihood opportunities in the state.

While the politicos argue in favour of government-regulated mining, induced with scientific methods, or something along those lines, it is imperative to note that many of them are, themselves, affluent coal barons of the state. According to a Citizens' Report prepared by civil society groups in Meghalaya, about 30 per cent of the 374 candidates who contested the elections were either owners of mines or have stakes in the coal mining and transportation industry. In fact, Vincent Pala, the Congress MP from Meghalaya who recently raised concerns in Parliament about the rat-hole mine tragedy in East Jaintia Hills, is himself a coal baron. If mining is a politically-motivated interest, then it is easy to decipher how several attempts to report illegal-mining activities or curb it would have faced stringent opposition from the powerful. Misuse of power is not new, and the same is seemingly the reason that has facilitated coal mining despite the ban. While the political aspect to the illicit business can be understood, what dazzles the mind is how the locals were never compensated for their practice of coal mining, once the ban came into effect. Just like how the government relocates and recompensates landowners in return for development projects on their land, the same could have been done for the Meghalaya mining paradigm which, as locals suggest, has been a prevalent feature for more than three decades. It is interesting to note how many more such incidents have taken place wherein locals have perished in dingy and unsafe mines while trying to earn a day's bread. These stories are buried deep in the mines along with the protagonist's mortal remains, owing to a poorly-maintained logbook. The mining mafia has a strong presence in the state and NGT's ban has been a double-edged sword; empowering the mafia to accrue profits by plundering natural resources and exposing the poor to uninsured and illegal livelihood, which has compounded to the current predicament that has gained national spotlight. Meghalaya has an estimated 5,000 illegal rat-hole mines, mostly in East Jaintia Hills. Since the ban, there has been a slowdown in economic activities by 70 per cent. Clearly, that slowdown was capitalised upon by the mafia. Considering how almost all parties are against the NGT ban, a unanimous rethink of the ban itself and Meghalaya's woes may be necessary to alleviate the despondent situation that plagues the state.

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