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India: Meghalaya’s coal district marred by illegal mining, unsafe working conditions, and attacks against human rights defenders

Activist attack coal district India photo credit Reuters via Scroll.in \

On 8 November 2018, a prominent women's rights and environmental activist, Agnes Kharshiing, and her aides, Amita Sangma and Emiki Kurbah, were attacked by a group of 30-40 people in the East Jaintia hills, a coal-rich district in Meghalaya, India. Ms. Kharshiing is known for her activism against illegal mining. The attack occurred while she and her aides were taking photos of coal-mining activities in the area. The day before, Ms. Kharshiing had filed a complaint regarding trucks transporting coal in the region. Civil society and activists groups warn that this attack demonstrates the emergence of a “coal mafia” in the state, with some expressing concern about impunity for this and similar attacks.

Approximately one month later, at least 14 miners were trapped in an illegal “rat-hole” mine operating in the same district. These types of mines are known for their dangerous working conditions. In April 2014, the National Green Tribunal ordered the suspension of all rat-hole coal mining in Meghalaya; however, it has allowed the transport of already-mined coal until 31 January 2019. The ongoing permissibility of transportation means that rat-hole mining continues in the region, often by minor workers who are hired for their small size and ability to fit in narrow tunnels.

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12 February 2019

India: Supreme Court holds owner of mine responsible for Meghalaya collapse

Author: Prabin Kalita, The Times of India

"Supreme Court holds owner of mine responsible for Meghalaya mine mishap", 8 February 2019

The Supreme Court, on whose intervention rescue operations have been kept on, to rescue trapped miners in illegal rat hole coal mine in Meghalaya, on Friday [8 February] held the owner of the mine responsible for the mishap that happened on December 13.

Judges...also asked Meghalaya government and Coal India Ltd to give particulars of other illegal mines operating in the area. The court will hear the matter on February 22.

Fifteen miners got stuck inside the rat hole coal mine...[in the]...East Jaintia Hills [in] Meghalaya on December 13 last when the mine was suddenly flooded...by gushing water of the Lytein river nearby...

Coal mining was banned in 2014 by National Green Tribunal after a series of mine tragedies killed scores of people between 1992 and 2014...Meghalaya government had been denying the existence of illegal coal mines until this tragedy. The state implemented the mines and minerals policy in 2012 but the Act was ignored by mine owners. Successive state governments would look the otehr way becasue coal is one of the its biggest revenue earners for the state...

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7 January 2019

India: One of the world’s most dangerous countries to be a coal miner, with one miner dying every six days

Author: Roli Srivastava, Thomas Reuters, India

"India disaster exposes lack of enforcement against deadly illegal mines", 4 January 2019

Ongoing efforts to reach victims of a mining disaster in northeastern India have exposed ...poor enforcement against such illegal mines, where undocumented workers risk injury or death. At least 15 people were trapped when an illegal coal mine in Meghalaya state flooded on Dec. 13. Rescue efforts continue, although relatives said this week they had lost hope that the miners were still alive.

Environmental concerns have led to India imposing bans on the mining of coal, mica and sand, among other minerals. Yet, workers across the country continue to put themselves at risk as illegal mining continues...The most recent disaster highlighted the dangers of so-called “rat-hole” mines, where workers crawl into narrow shafts on bamboo ladders to extract low-quality coal...

Illegal mining tends to attract workers from around India and neighboring countries who are lured by the promise of relatively high wages, but are faced with dangerous conditions once they arrive...Other workers - including children - are trafficked...India is one of the world’s most dangerous countries to be a coal miner, with one miner dying every six days on average in 2017, according to government data...

A[n]...investigation in Maharashtra state found that workers were drowning as they illegally extracted sand from the bottom of a creek near Mumbai, India’s commercial capital.

The deaths were not reported and employers paid only a few families a small amount of money.

In response to the revelations, the Maharashtra state government promised to end illegal mining along the creek, impose regulations, and provide alternate jobs.

But a year later, sand mining was continuing and most of those promises remained unfulfilled...



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7 January 2019

India: Meghalaya mine collapse: Beyond the tragedy, for state’s politicians, mining their own business

Author: Abhishek Saha, The Indian Express

"Meghalaya mine collapse: Beyond the tragedy, for state’s politicians, mining their own business", 29 December 2018

Two weeks after 15 workers in Meghalaya were trapped while mining coal using the “rat-hole technique,” and are feared dead now, Lok Sabha MP [a member of the lower house of parliament] from Shillong...told the House...this should be “regularised”. This method — with narrow tunnels dug in mountains for workers to move through and extract coal — was slammed as illegal, unscientific and harmful, and banned by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) on April 17, 2014.

[The MP] made this demand but what he did not spell out was that he was also a prominent coal businessman in the state...About a dozen politicians allegedly own coal mines themselves or have relatives as mine owners and were named by a Citizens’ Report prepared by civil society groups in Meghalaya and submitted to the Supreme Court earlier this month...

When asked about his involvement in coal mining [the MP]....said, “I had 30-40 coal mines but I have stopped mining in them since the NGT ban..."...The NGT’s 2014 order had noted that the counsel for the petitioners had explained to the court how “rat-hole mining operations have been in practice in the Jaintia Hills of the State of Meghalaya many years without being regulated by any law and extraction of coal has been made by unscrupulous elements in a most illegal and unscientific manner”...[The MP], however, said the laws which regulate mining in other parts of the country cannot be followed in Meghalaya because the nature of coal deposit is very different from what we find in other parts of the country...

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7 January 2019

India: National Green Tribunal imposes Rs 1 billion fine on Meghalaya government for illegal coal mining

Author: Scroll.in, India

"National Green Tribunal imposes Rs 100-crore fine on Meghalaya government for illegal coal mining", 5 January 2019

The National Green Tribunal on Friday [5 January] imposed a Rs 100-crore fine [1 billion Indian rupees] on the Meghalaya government for failing to check illegal coal mining in the state, PTI reported. The order comes as operations to rescue 15 miners trapped in an illegal rat-hole mine in East Jaintia Hills since December 13 is still under way.

A high-level committee had submitted a report to the tribunal...two days ago. The report said that a majority of mines in the state were operating without a lease or a licence...The tribunal said the fine was imposed on the state government as a deterrent and for its inaction to curb illegal mining...

On Thursday [3 January], the Supreme Court had expressed dissatisfaction with the rescue operation and asked why the Army had not been called in for its support. A day later, the top court asked the Centre and the Meghalaya government to file by January 7 a status report on the steps taken to rescue 15 workers...The entire rescue operation has been marred by poor communication and delayed responses from the government.

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19 December 2018

India: 14 miners remain trapped in flooded Meghalaya coal mine

Author: Abhishek Saha, The Indian Express

"Six days on, 14 miners remain trapped in flooded Meghalaya coal mine", 18 December 2018

Search operations to rescue trapped miners in Meghalaya’s East Jaintia Hills (EJH) district continued unsuccessfully for the sixth straight day on Tuesday [18 December] amidst heavy rains. The state police officially confirmed the identity of another worker inside, which takes the number of trapped miners to 14.

On Thursday [13 December], an illegal coal mine...collapsed and got flooded from the adjacent Lytein river, trapping the 14 workers. The miners are feared dead now although personnel of the NDRF [National Disaster Response Force] and SDRF [State Disaster Response Fund] continue the search operations...police arrested one [mine owner on] Friday [14 December]...The mine has been termed “illegal” by activists since coal mining in Meghalaya using the ‘rat-hole mining’ technique — which is used in most mines in the state including the one in which the accident occurred — has been banned by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2014...

[The] Meghalaya chief minister... who had admitted a day after the incident that illegal mining was going on in the state — has reiterated that although strict action against any illegal coal mining is taken whenever reported, the size of the state and the remoteness of the certain mining locations often makes it difficult for the police to track down illegal mining.

The accident comes on the heels of an attack in November on activist Agnes Kharshiing, who has been vocal against mining in Meghalaya despite the NGT order, and her colleague Amita Sangma by goons hired by the coal mafia in the same district while they were trying to locate an illegal mine...

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19 December 2018

India: Caught between coal mafia and flooding dangers, Meghalaya mine was reportedly disaster from day one

Author: Pranjal Baruah, News18, India

"Caught between coal mafia and flooding dangers, Meghalaya mine was disaster from day one", 20 December 2018

The collapse of a coal mine, trapping 14 workers in [Meghalaya] and the attack on RTI [right to information] activist Agnes Kharshiing allegedly by coal mafia, have put the spotlight on the rampant illegal coal mining in the state, despite a ban by National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2014...

On November 8, Kharshiing was thrashed by alleged coal mining racketeers in Kongong area for taking pictures of some coal-laden trucks. Her complaints against the illegal miners were ignored and the police registered a case of robbery and attempt to murder. A month later on December 13, some 48 km away from the spot where she was assaulted, 14 persons were trapped inside an illegal ‘rat-hole' mine at Ksan in the district's Saipung area...

Recalling her visit to Saipung last year, Kharshiing said, “I met miners aged between 16 and 20. They had come from Assam’s Barpeta and Karbi Anglong districts and a few were from Nepal. Burdened with severe poverty, these miners had chosen a job that could have killed them any day. The government doesn’t seem to be bothered with human lives.”...

Apart from being illegal, these mines are notorious for their dangerous and primitive methods...Locals and mine workers claim sometimes tunnels are so small that minor workers are hired only because of their small size. The rat-hole mine of Ksan, where the fate of 14 workers still remains uncertain, is believed to be 70 feet deep and now filled with water...

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19 December 2018

India: The unregulated, lethal and corrupt world of Meghalaya’s rat-hole mines

Author: Ishan Kukreti, Down To Earth, India

"The unregulated, lethal and corrupt world of Meghalaya’s rat-hole mines", 17 December 2018

It has been two days since 13 workers got trapped in an illegal rat-hole mine in the East Jaintia Hills district of Meghalaya. On the morning of December 13, the mine, which the authorities say is around 320 feet deep, was flooded by a nearby river, trapping the miners...These rat-hole mines are spread throughout Meghalaya, but are mostly concentrated in the Jaintia Hills...On April 17, 2014, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned illegal rat-hole mining after [a petition was filed] that highlighted the unscientific and unregulated rat-hole coal mining operations in the Jaintia Hills. However, following protests by the mining lobby, the tribunal allowed the transport of already-mined coal. 

The Meghalaya government challenged the NGT ban in the Supreme Court in November this year. In its last hearing, the apex court extended the time for transportation of mined coal till January 31, 2019...The court also appointed human rights lawyer...as the amicus curiae in the case. A Citizen’s Report on the illegal coal mining has also been submitted in the court through [the lawyer] that talks about the environmental and human cost of running these mines. 

...the illegal extraction of coal in the state has also been pointed out by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) this year in its report on the revenue sector of the state...The CAG report found that the under-reporting of coal exported to Bangladesh resulted in the short realisation of revenue by around Rs.46 crore...The CAG report also found that the mine owners did not pay the royalties to the District Mining Officer (DMO)..

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16 November 2018

India: Amnesty urges investigation into attack on activists in coal mining district

Author: Sikh Siyasat Burea, India

Amnesty urges Meghalaya to investigate attacks on activists for exposing illegal coal mining,

10 November 2018

The grievous attack on activist Anges Kharshiing and her two aides -- Amita Sangma and Emiki Kurbah -- in Meghalaya, highlights a pattern of reprisals against activists who are standing up against injustice and exposing corruption in the state, said Amnesty India.

Activists working against rampant illegal coal mining in Meghalaya are under serious threat. There seems to be a nexus between the authorities and the 'coal mafia' in the state, which has resulted in a culture of impunity. Those responsible for this brutal attack must be brought to justice. 

On 8 November, 58-year-old activist, Agnes Kharshiing... and her aides were attacked by a mob…while taking photos of ‘coal dumping’ in the East Jaintia hills in the state. [Ms. Kharshiing] has been admitted in a hospital in Shillong with serious head injuries. Her condition continues to be critical while her two aides are stable...

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2014 had banned ‘rat-hole’ mining of coal in the state. Among a range of violations, this form of mining also exploits children who are made to work in such mines. Agnes Kharshiing was running a campaign against the illegal coal mining in the state…Kharshiing had lodged a complaint regarding coal-laden trucks in the region, a day before she was attacked…

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