Rat-hole mining is a traditional and an unscientific method of coal extraction and, in East Jaintia Hills of northeastern India, this has led to the acidification of a nearby river. Understanding the adverse effects of rat-hole mining on the environment, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) imposed a ban on extraction of coal through this method. However, the Supreme Court has extended the deadline for transportation of already extracted coal multiple times and this has done nothing except for providing a safe leeway for the illegal mine owners to extract fresh coal.
The National Green Tribunal could have ideally established a body that would look into implementation aspects of the ban and to keep a check over illegal transportation and mining. Enacting a law by itself does not solve problems in the absence of a comprehensive implementation mechanism. The state has been negligent in efficiently enforcing the ban and the involvement of numerous elected representatives in unregulated coal mining poses great difficulty at the level of implementation. In such a situation, a blanket ban including a ban on transportation of extracted coal would have effectively curbed these activities, but the court has resorted to lifting the restrictions placed over coal transportation until 19th February, 2019. Essentially there are environmental reasons behind such a decision as tonnes of extracted coal out in the open would pollute the river further but regulation of such transportation is a most feasible solution in sight.
Why rat-hole mining is problematic?
These rat-hole mines have turned into death traps for the workmen, as was evident in the recent mining tragedy in which 15 miners lost their lives despite months of search and rescue operation. This is not unusual in the states of Meghalaya, West Bengal and Jharkhand as there have been multiple such instances even before coal mines were nationalised. These accidents usually go unreported as most of these mines are illegally and discretely operated by coal mafias and powerful local families. This type of mining goes against the basic human rights and also statutory rights prescribed by labour laws in India. Even children are employed to extract coal when adults cannot go through a narrow hole, thereby violating Article 32 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child which prohibits children from engaging in hazardous work. This is an organized crime in the unorganized sector which facilitates exploitation of individuals based on their socio-economic conditions. Illegal coal mining only reflects how fragile lives of workers in the unorganised sector can be.
Circumstances drive the local people into taking up jobs in collieries. A large number of individuals in Ksan were compelled to take up jobs in the illegal mines owing to the fact that there was a loss of livelihood due to the ban.
Unemployment and illiteracy is a deadly combination of marginalization and agriculture was not a viable option due to shortage of land holdings and weather fluctuations. The objective of the local people is to earn enough for sustenance and to find a means for upliftment from poverty and this has made mining an attractive option as it pays Rs 30,000 per month as against the average per capita income in India which is only Rs 8,000. When employment opportunities go astray only hope for livelihood is left. Production in illegal mines is usually higher as compared to other mines and therefore, the higher wages. These illegal mines provide more employment opportunities as they are labour-intensive in nature. This is a dangerous trade-off between life and debt repayment as they do not consider leaving their hometown as an economically viable option and hence, the workers end taking-up jobs in their own areas.
Instead of pushing for regularisation of coal mines at the cost of the environment, the state must have ideally worked on providing viable alternative employment opportunities in this agrarian society where bread is primarily earned from collieries. Regularisation of coal mines would serve no purpose as the nature of the mine (i.e., rat-hole) would still remain deadly and also a pollutant factor. Prior to placing a ban on rat-hole mining, the prevailing socio-economic conditions of the place and its inhabitants should have been taken into consideration through which alternative or self-employment opportunities could have been generated. The locals would not have had experienced the brunt of the ban if an alternate opportunity was made available to them.
The concern here is the inability to persuade the individuals working in the mines to take up other feasible jobs which proves that there is much more that needs to be done. The need of the hour is to initiate skill development programmes for the locals, complimenting the alternative employment opportunities so as to empower them to take-up better jobs. The Meghalaya State Skill Development Society has many avenues for various sectors under its framework. It also provides training sessions to individuals in need of jobs. Such training sessions were previously held for the landless and marginal farmers from the Jaintia Hills.
Sustainable tourism practices can provide numerous opportunities to earn livelihood. It can provide viable opportunities for them to become a local guide or sell handmade artefacts at places of importance. Basic training in communication would help in a great way considering the boost of the tourism industry in Meghalaya. It is one of the highest revenue generators of the state and has the potential to beat coal in this race; which is why sustainable tourism, causing no harm to the environment, is important to be publicised and prioritised. Crafts, one of the other activities indigenous to this place, can also become a constant source of income and an increase in tourism caters to better marketing.
Considering the impact of rat-hole mining on the lives of the economically depressed communities, it is high-time for the government to ensure that illegal mines are not operational while also ensuring that there is an alternative source of livelihood available to the locals.
(The writer is a law student at National Academy of Legal Studies and Research (NALSAR) University of Law, India. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)