It has been over a week since waters from a river flooded an illegal Meghalaya mine, trapping at least 15 people inside.
Ksan (East Jaintia Hills): There were few answers for Ram Prasad Limbu, 70, of Assam as he trawled the Ksan coal mining site in East Jaintia Hills, Meghalaya, with a photograph of his 21-year-old son Assh Bahadur.
Assh, a native of Assam’s Karbi Anglong, is one of at least 15 miners missing since waters from the river Lytien, which flows nearby, flooded an illegal “rat-hole mine” on 13 December, trapping them 370 feet below the ground.
Heavy rains and strong winds have hampered rescue operations since, and hopes for the miners’ survival are dim at best.
“The mine collapsed on 13 December, but nobody from the state [Meghalaya] government bothered to inform us,” said Limbu, talking to ThePrint Wednesday.
“I got to know about it just three days ago, after a call from a relative who was at the site when my son went inside,” he said.
“Just because we are poor, nobody is bothered.”
Limbu, who lost his eldest son in a road accident last year, said he did not have the money to make the journey.
“The villagers raised money for his travel,” said Krishna Bhattarai, a neighbour who is accompanying Limbu in the search for Assh.
Alex Dkhar, a local from a village nearby named Lumthri, was at the site to look for his elder brother, Shalabas. He said he wasn’t informed about the flooding either.
“My brother used to call me once every three to four days,” he said. “When I did not hear from him, I decided to come and check.
“I have been coming here for the last three days. I sit the whole day and go back in the evening. Had a similar accident happened to big people, would the government’s reaction have been so slow?”
For Limbu, Dkhar and the others, there’s little succour to be found in district administration officials and police, who, a week after the accident, are still uncertain about the exact number of miners trapped.
Till 17 December, the district authorities were saying a total of 13 miners were trapped inside. Between Tuesday and Wednesday, two names were added to the list as family members of more victims arrived at the site with documents.
“The owner of the coal mine was arrested two days ago, but we do not have the exact count of the trapped miners… as the manager of the mine, who would have the attendance register, is on the run,” said Sylvester Nongtnger, superintendent of police, East Jaintia Hills.
“He is from Assam and we are on the lookout for him,” he added.
Deep inside Earth
The real tragedy of the mine accident is how avoidable it was. Just four years ago, the National Green Tribunal (NGT), India’s environment court, had banned rat-hole mining in Meghalaya, a process said to account for the bulk of mining operations in the state, while flagging its inherent risks.
According to an explainer in The Indian Express, rat-hole mining of the sort being undertaken at the East Jaintia Hills site involves digging a vertical tunnel up to 400 feet deep in search of coal seams, which are beds of the mineral that are thick enough to be profitably mined.
Once a coal seam is spotted, extremely narrow tunnels (hence, rat holes) are dug horizontally, which miners then enter to extract the black gold.
At the accident site, waters from the Lytien have flooded the main coal pit, leaving the miners with no way out.
Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma has claimed repeatedly that the government will provide whatever help is required for the rescue operation, but personnel of the National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) seem to be struggling with inadequate equipment.
Two units of the NDRF, including divers, arrived at the site from Guwahati within a day of the accident, but they say that the pumps given by the district administration are not equipped to handle the force with which the water continues to flood the pit.
“My men are on the job round the clock,” NDRF assistant commandant Santosh Kumar told ThePrint.
“But despite our best efforts, I am disappointed to say that we are, more or less, where we were on day one. The water level inside the pit has only receded marginally.”
“According to mine experts, the main coal pit can hold two lakh litres of water,” said Kumar. “So far, we have already removed seven lakh litres of water. But despite this, there is only a marginal reduction in the water level. This means that the water is gushing in from some other source, like the river. We have to find a way to stop that.”
The team currently has just two pumps, with a capacity to take out 600 litres of water per minute.
Mining experts from Guwahati’s Directorate General of Mines Safety, who visited the spot for the survey, told the NDRF in a report that they needed pumps over three times as powerful, which can pull out 500 gallons, or nearly 1,900 litres, a minute.
The two pipes at hand, the personnel said, were not enough either — they needed more to be able to pull out more water.
District administration officials said they had approached the government with requests for stronger pumps, but received no reply.
“We don’t have the kind of big pumps that are required,” said an official.
“It’s a very complex situation here,” said NDRF assistant commandant Kumar. “The first and foremost thing is to reduce the level of water inside the coal pit. Unless that happens, we are stuck.”
“Our divers are going in every day but they are trained to go up to 30 feet deep, whereas the water level inside is more than 70 feet,” he added.
Kumar said there was not much hope of finding survivors.
“The problem is that, unlike legal mines, we do not have any map of how many lateral pits [tunnels] are there, how deep they are, etc. If a miner is stuck inside one of the lateral channels, which is filled with water, how do you recover him, unless water is pumped out?”
As crucial time passes by, the Meghalaya government is now bringing in retired engineer Jaswant Singh Gill, who, in 1989, rescued 64 miners trapped in a colliery of Eastern Coalfied Limited in West Bengal’s Raniganj area.
Gill, who had approached the state government with an offer to help, is expected to reach the site soon.
Relatives of the trapped miners, meanwhile, are looking to the heavens in the absence of answers. The site where the accident happened is located some five kilometres from the nearest motorable road. Vehicles can go up to a certain point, after which one has to walk to the mine.
On Tuesday, some relatives, accompanied by local villagers, trekked to the site where their loved ones went missing. Once there, they dug in their heels, and prayed.