Are Illegal Exports to Bangladesh Spurring Rat Hole Coal Mining in Meghalaya?

Rampant rat hole coal mining is prevalent in Meghalaya despite a ban while the state government is yet to conduct a thorough enquiry.

New Delhi: The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-allied Meghalaya government is yet to bring the coal mafia under leash even as alleged illegal exports of fossil fuel to Bangladesh have led to a proliferation of rat hole mining in the northeastern state.

There have been a series of fatal accidents at rat hole mining pits in Meghalaya – the most recent being the one in East Jaintia Hills district where rescue efforts were underway last week – while the state government, led by chief minister Conrad Sangma of the National People’s Party, is yet to come clear on what is spurring illegal coal extraction despite a National Green Tribunal (NGT) ban in 2014.

Is demand from neighboring Bangladesh one of the reasons behind the spurring of illegal coal mining in Meghalaya? A three-member NGT-appointed judicial committee had in December 2019 found huge discrepancies in figures pertaining to the export of coal to Bangladesh from Meghalaya. The panel sought further details from the Meghalaya government. But when state government officials protested that the investigations were going beyond the purview of the green tribunal mandate, the panel’s chief, a former judge of Gauhati high court, Justice Brojendra Prasad Katakey, quit.

“We sought detailed figures of the amount of coal cleared for export from Meghalaya to Bangladesh, but there was total non-cooperation from the state’s mining department officials. At present, all forms of coal mining in Meghalaya are illegal since the state government has not handed out any leases. Neither have any coal mining plans been approved by the central government. As a result, unscientific mining has spawned and caused great damage to the environment of Meghalaya,” Justice Katakey told The Wire.

Also read: Since March 2019, Meghalaya Has Registered 250 Cases Against Illegal Coal Mining

Amongst information provided to the Justice Katakey-led judicial panel by the Customs department, were figures of coal transported on the road route from Meghalaya to Bangladesh via seven Land Customs Stations (LCS) after imposition of the NGT ban in 2014.

As per the figures, 4,167 metric tons of coal originating from Meghalaya had been transported in 463 truckloads to Bangladesh through the Gasuapara LCS in May 2019. However, as per the records of the state’s Mining & Geology Department for May 2019, only three truckloads carrying exactly 27 tons of coal had been exported to Bangladesh. Suspecting more irregularities, the panel asked the Mining & Geology Department to furnish month-wise records of coal cleared for export to Bangladesh through all Land Customs Stations ever since the NGT ban but these details were never provided.

These lacunae on the part of the mining department were recorded in the Sixth Interim Report submitted to the NGT by the Justice Katakey panel. The report concluded that export of illegally mined coal to Bangladesh in the guise of coal permitted to be transported, and also as overload in trucks, had sustained illegal rat-hole coal mining in Meghalaya.

Labourers work at a coal stockyard in East Jaintia Hills in Meghalaya, India, September 16, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Krishna N. Das/Files

Following the stepping down of Justice Katakey, the NGT appointed a new head to the panel – another retired judge of Gauhati high court who has since submitted two additional interim reports. However, the state’s mining department is yet to compile the data or finish an enquiry into the alleged discrepancies.

When contacted on Monday, a senior official of the Mining & Geology Department said work is still underway to collate the data.

“We are enquiring about discrepancies in the figures pertaining to export of coal to Bangladesh. The data is being verified. Till March 2021, we have filed 250 cases of illegal mining under the provisions of the Mines and Minerals (Development & Regulation) Act, 1957,” said Dr C Manjunatha, Secretary, Department of Mining & Geology of Meghalaya.

Till date, the state government has not awarded any leases for coal mining. However, the official from the Mining and Geology Department confirmed that recently the Union Ministry of Coal has approved two licenses for carrying out ‘prospecting operations’ of the fossil fuel in Meghalaya.

Also read: Ground Report: For Meghalaya Mine Workers, Even Death is No Escape From Debts

As per activists, illegal coal mining in Meghalaya is mostly concentrated in districts that share their borders with Bangladesh with buffers of forested areas in between. These include the districts of East Jaintia Hills, West Jaintia Hills, South West Khasi Hills and South Garo Hills. Is illegally mined coal also being smuggled from across Meghalaya through these forests along the Indo-Bangladesh border? A spokesperson of the Border Security Force (BSF) denied of any instance when coal smuggling across the Indo-Bangladesh border has ever come to light.

“In fact, the coal mafia grabs land belonging to locals for extracting the mineral. Locals have informed us about land grabbing incidents during our field visits. Instances of rat hole mining are rampant. Since illegal mining takes place away from the eyes of the government authorities, exploitation of workers engaged in these activities is also rampant. Workers dig coal in very unsafe and precarious conditions,” said Meghalaya-based activist Agnes Kharshiing.

Rescue personnel at the illegal coal mine in East Jaintia Hills, Meghalaya in December 2018. Photo: PTI

Till late on Thursday, rescue operations were still underway to retrieve trapped laborers from the coal mining pit in Krem Ule area of East Jaintia Hills which had got flooded with water following a dynamite blast on May 31. The rescuers had managed to retrieve only one dead body from the pit on 16 June after more than a fortnight of efforts.

“No one has come forward to claim the dead body so far and it is still unidentified. An operation by the Navy is underway to look for the remaining trapped workers. The state and national disaster response forces are assisting the Navy in the rescue operation. The pit is in the shape of a room and is filled with several feet of water which makes diving difficult. We have arrested two people in the incident so far including the mine-owner Shining Lamurong. The Sordar [mine manager] is still absconding,” E Kharmalki, Deputy Commissioner of East Jaintia Hills, told the Wire on late on Thursday evening.

SC’s conditional lifting of ban on coal mining in Meghalaya

In its judgement delivered on July 3, 2019, the Supreme Court had upheld the position of the government that sub-surface mineral rights in Meghalaya belonged to individuals and communities – and were not directly vested with the state – owing to its unique land ownership pattern. The apex court had directed that all coal lying at the mine heads, ever since the green tribunal imposed a ban on its mining and transportation, be handed over to the public sector Coal India Limited for its disposal.

The court had directed the state government to assess the quantity of coal lying undisposed in four districts of Meghalaya. The government had also been directed to formulate a comprehensive plan, together with the NGT-appointed judicial committee and officials of Coal India Limited, for disposal of the coal. The revenues in terms of royalties from sale of the coal were to be divided between the Meghalaya government and Coal India Limited as per a proportion worked out by the Supreme Court in its judgement. Till Justice Katakey quit the NGT-appointed judicial committee, the state government of Meghalaya had made no effort whatsoever to work out a plan for disposing of the coal. The coal miner owner was also entitled to a certain proportion of revenues from the sale of accumulated coal as per the apex court verdict. The apex court had entrusted the state government to ensure that mine owners got their proportionate dues from the sale of coal.

The actual number of accidents reported from illegal coal mining pits in Meghalaya is presumed to be much higher than official figures provided by the state government. Earlier in January this year, six workers had been killed in another coal mining accident in East Jaintia Hills. In December 2018, at least 15 mine workers were reportedly killed in yet another coal mining accident in East Jaintia Hills.

It was after this incident that the Supreme Court revised the NGT order and allowed for a legal and scientific process of coal mining in Meghalaya. The Supreme Court also directed the Meghalaya government to hand over all coal, lying unutilised at mine heads at the time when the NGT ban came into force, to the public sector Coal India Limited for its disposal and auction.

Also read: In Photos: As Activist Recovers from Attack, Illegal Coal Mining Continues in Meghalaya

The Justice Katakey panel had further blamed the Meghalaya government in its sixth report for letting several miners go scot-free on the pretext that they were merely transporting coal extracted prior to the NGT ban even if the transportation was taking place five years after the ban.

In February 2020, Meghalaya Lokayukta PK Mushahary had ordered a CBI enquiry into rampant illegal coal mining in the state despite a ban. This order was challenged by the Meghalaya government on the grounds that the Lokayukta was not empowered to ‘order’ a CBI enquiry. In March 2021, following another complaint about illegal mining and transportation of coal by the Leader of Opposition Dr Mukul Sangma, the Lokayukta ‘recommended’ the state government for a CBI enquiry. However, the Meghalaya government is yet to take any action in the matter.

Ayaskant Das is a journalist and author.