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No miracle in 7 months, rescue team in search of Meghalaya miners wraps up mission

SC last week allowed Meghalaya govt to call off operation to retrieve what remained of the bodies of 13 coal miners trapped in a flooded coal mine.

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New Delhi: Seven arduous months after hopelessly searching for the bodies of 13 miners trapped in an illegal coal mine at Ksan in Meghalaya’s East Jaintia Hills district, the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) teams are now packing their bags to go back home.

The Supreme Court Friday allowed the Meghalaya government to call off the mission to retrieve what remained of the bodies of the miners trapped in the flooded rat-hole coal mine.

The catastrophe, in which 15 men were submerged alive when an illegal ‘rat-hole’ mine was flooded on 13 December 2018, had made national headlines for a few weeks after it occurred, but as repeated attempts to find and retrieve bodies failed over the course of months, even Meghalaya state officials lost hope.

Despite all the seeming ingredients for a successful mission, including national media spotlight, there was little to show — only two bodies were recovered from the mine till date.

As of February this year, 10 specialised divers from the Indian Navy, a contingent of nearly 15 Army officers, three medical technicians on daily call, 70 officials of the NDRF, 15 members of the SDRF and a cameo by a 22-member team from the Odisha Fire Services were engaged in the Meghalaya mine rescue mission — making it one of the largest experiments in civic cooperation till date.

While the Navy and the Army had announced their departure in March, the NDRF and the SDRF, which were engaged in the rescue operation from the very beginning, continued to live, eat and sleep on site.

Santosh Kumar Singh, an assistant commandant of the NDRF was at East Jaintia Hills for 66 days, before other commitments at his headquarters and the realisation that “there really wasn’t that much left to do” pulled him away from the site.

Teams finally signing off

The tragedy reached closure when Meghalaya’s Attorney General (AG) Amit Kumar pleaded before the apex court for a formal suspension of all operations and a bench comprising Justice S.A. Bobde and Justice B.R. Gavai passed the order to this effect.

But as early as on 4 February, Justice A.K. Sikri of the SC had remarked how it “seem(ed) to be certain that nobody is alive” — a far cry from the top court’s 11 January order to continue the operation because “miracles do happen”.

Speaking to ThePrint, on 11 February, Additional Superintendent of Police, East Jaintia Hills, Lethindra Sangma had said “someone has to call it off”.

Families of the trapped miners, in the meanwhile, had already given their consent to call off the rescue operations in May.

AG Kumar Friday told the media that the Supreme Court allowed the state’s application and permitted it to close the operation.

“A request was made by the senior counsel of the petitioner for laying of standard operating procedure (SoP) that can be followed in case of similar eventualities across India,” Kumar added, saying the bench will hear the issue related to the SoP after four weeks.

Justice Bobde and Justice Gavai were hearing a petition which had sought urgent steps to rescue the miners trapped in the rat-hole mine.

Waiting to go home

Now, the Ksan team is signing off, as NDRF officer Singh said, “after what became the longest and most extensive operation I have ever seen in my life.”

Singh also added that rescue officials had realised fairly early on — within 10 days to two weeks of the tragedy — that chances of survival for the miners were slim.

“But we are here to do our duty. Whenever it is a matter of life, then we have hope, and when we know that life has not survived, then we continue out of a sense of humanity,” he said.

The total number of days spent on the mission is 211.

Around Rs 3.5 crore had been spent on the rescue operation till May, East Jaintia Hills Deputy Commissioner F.M. Dopth told reporters Friday. “The total amount may go up as contractors, suppliers and others will be submitting bills,” he added.

Coal India Limited (CIL), Kirloskar Brothers and KSB had provided high-powered pumps to help empty the flooded mine of water.

Meba Sukhlain and John Suba, two young locals, had also volunteered to help the stationed personnel from the first day of the operation, trekking through hills on foot so that food and other essential supplies could reach the rescue teams at the pit — located about 45 kilometres away from the district administration headquarters.

“We were also waiting for the SC order to close the operation. Why waste public resources,” Dopth wrote on a media WhatsApp group on 29 June.

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


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