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NGT panel blames ‘un-abetted illegal mining’ for Meghalaya tragedy

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The NGT report finds that a blasé Meghalaya government looked the other way when illegal mining was going on in several East Jaintia Hills areas.

New Delhi: A three-member independent committee appointed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has held the state government’s failure to curb the “ongoing un-abetted illegal mining” in Meghalaya’s East Jaintia Hills responsible for the mining accident in Ksan, where at least 15 miners got trapped after the rat-hole mine where they were working collapsed on 13 December 2018.

The NGT had banned coal mining in the state in 2014.

As rescue operations fail to make much headway even after three weeks, dimming hope of the miners’ survival, the committee, headed by retired Gauhati high court judge B.P. Katoki, has found that a blasé state government looked the other way when such illegal mining was rampant in several areas in East Jaintia Hills district.

In its 55-page report, accessed by ThePrint, the high-level panel says, “The result of ongoing un-abetted illegal mining, despite the ban imposed by the NGT, is the very tragic incident occurred very recently on 13.12.2018 in a coal mine in Ksan village near Lytein river under Saipung police station in East Jaintia Hills District, where 15 coal mine workers are reported trapped, while they were working in the mine.”

The committee was appointed by the NGT in August 2018 to go into the issues arising out of the coal mining activities in the state. A copy of the report was submitted to the NGT’s principal bench in the national capital last week.

Taking cognisance of the Katoki panel’s report, the NGT on 4 January imposed a fine of Rs 100 crore on the Meghalaya government for failing to check illegal coal mining.

Also read: For Navy divers, it’s a difficult & dangerous search for survivors in Meghalaya coal mine

Ban on coal mining

The Katoki panel has also come down heavily on the state government for failing to implement the 2014 ban.

“Very sincere and honest efforts are required on the part of the state government to stop the mining activities, which are going on. Such mining activities are going on without adopting any safety measures for the workers and without caring for adverse environmental affect,” says the report.

“A sincere desire to stop such illegal mining activities is also necessary on the part of the state and central governments agencies for implementation and monitoring of health, safety and environmental regulations,” says the report.

Illegal mining in East Jaintia Hills district

To get first-hand information, the Katoki panel visited coal mine areas in and around Deinchynrum village, Rymbai village, Sutnga village and Latyrke area of East Jaintia Hills district in November and came across many fresh coal dumps on the roadside.

In its report, the committee observed that most of this appeared “to be recently mined coal”.

“From the aforesaid materials available before the committee, it is, therefore, evident that the coal mining activities, which includes the extraction of coal and transportation, is going on in the state of Meghalaya, at least in East Jaintia Hills District, where such mining activities are most, despite the ban imposed by the Hon’ble NGT vide its order dated 17.04.2014,” the report says.

‘Clandestine’ mining activity

The deputy commissioner (DC) of East Jaintia Hills, in a report submitted to the Katoki panel, too said that he had communicated to the state government on 3 December that mining activities are going on in a “clandestine manner” in the district, mostly during night time or early morning hours.

“In the said communication, the Deputy Commissioner has also admitted that fresh coal dumps are also found in the coal mine areas, apart from in Rymbai Road. The Deputy Commissioner, thus, admitted the ongoing mining activities, after imposition of ban by the Hon’ble NGT,” says the report.

The Katoki panel had sought report from the DCs of West Jaintia Hills, East Jaintia Hills, East Khasi Hills, West Khasi Hills, South-West Khasi Hills and Ri Bhoi on coal mining activities in their respective districts.

Except for the DC of East Jaintia Hills, all the other submitted reports said that coal mining activities wasn’t going on after the imposition of ban.

Also read: The NGT had slammed coal mafia while banning rat-hole mining in Meghalaya

How mining is endangering the environment

During its inspection, the NGT-appointed panel visited Umshyllih, one of the rivers in the district to analyse the pH level of the water at site. The pH level was found to be as low as 2.87, which indicates that the water in the river is highly acidic.

“The team also found abandon box cutting for coal mines as well as mines opening on the bed of the river as well as on both the sides of the said river. No biological lives are seen in the river. The rocks in the river bed turned yellowish, which also indicates flow of acid mine drainage,” says the report.

In a presentation made before the committee, Shantanu Dutta, one of the panel members and a scientist on the Central Pollution Control Board, said that unscientific rat-hole mining of coal in the state had resulted in highly acidic surface water in the rivers and mines, making such water unsuitable for consumption by humans and animals.

Dutta’s presentation also said that the pH level of water, in some rivers and streams, is as low as 2.2. There was no respite in the acidic nature of water, even during the monsoon.

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