What’s more appalling than government’s half-hearted response to the organization of rescue operations for the miners trapped in a rat-hole mine in Meghalaya, is our media’s apathy towards the whole incident. In fact, it highlights the disregard we have for the lives of the poor in our country. On 13 December 2018, 15 miners were trapped inside a rat-hole mine in Ksan area of the state. The miners got trapped inside the coal mine at a depth of around 370 feet (112 meters) in Jaintia Hills district. The tunnel, the miners were in was flooded with water after they cut into an adjacent mine which was full of water from the nearby Lytein river. The first official word came in around thirty-six days later when Navy divers detected the body of one person, which is more than a month after the operations began. However, the search still continues.
The Supreme Court has requested that the rescuers continue looking, saying that marvels occur. Be that as it may, as time passes, the opportunity of a miracle reduces. All things considered, one can’t neglect the lazy reaction to the disaster by the administration which was on a break for New Year. It was only seven days after the catastrophe that rescue operations began properly. Illegal coal mining is a huge issue in the state of Meghalaya. Mining activity is carried out by drilling what are known as ‘rat-holes’. A rat-hole is a narrow-horizontal shaft inside the mine. A miner has to crawl inside the rat-hole to extract coal.
In 2014, Meghalaya’s yearly coal generation was around 6 million tonnes. In 2014, the National Green Tribunal (NGT), an administrative body that handles ecological issues in India, issued a request prohibiting mining in Meghalaya, explicitly forbidding mining through the ‘rat hole’ technique. However, regardless of the ban, in subsequent orders following petitions by coal mine proprietors, the National Green Tribunal and the Supreme Court kept on permitting transportation of coal dug prior to the enactment of the order on 17 April 2014. On 4 December 2018 the Supreme Court again issued an order that date for the transportation of coal mined prior to the ban was extended to January 31, 2019. However, NGT as well as anti-mining activists have pointed out that illegal mining of fresh coal still continues.
The working conditions in these mines are terrible and there are no work laws securing these workers. The work they take up is unlawful, yet that does not trouble the workers. What choice do they have anyway? In a place that is known for few employment opportunities, a day inside the mine acquires them ₹1,500 to ₹2,000. The other alternative is to drudge on farms or sell vegetables and gain a small ₹150 per day.
Having said all this, it is true and we know that had an incident of a similar intensity taken place in any of the metro cities, the amount of coverage it would have received from our media and the government would have been way different. Perhaps our concern is so less, considering that the miners come from the Northeast – a part of India that many of us sitting in our air-conditioned apartments associate with momos and rock music.
Contrast this with the rescue of the 13 school boys trapped in a cave in Thailand last June. The rescue activities went on for about fourteen days and it caught the entire world’s attention. We prayed for the Thai young men, tweeted about it, and cheered their rescue. Back home, during the election season, the narrative of the Meghalaya miners has been limited to the pages of national papers. Maybe our concern has significantly reduced, taking into account that the miners are from the Northeast. Google ‘Manipur mining incident’ and you can see that only a handful of articles or reports are available. When the locals and the activists took some initiative and a PIL was filed seeking urgent steps for rescuing the miners trapped in the rat-hole mine, only then did our media and government wake up.
It is an open secret in Meghalaya that the money generated from the coal mining plays a key role in electoral funding. Politicians across various parties have either owned or have been directly or indirectly involved in coal mining. Why is it that news about Priyanka Chopra’s wedding or Virat Kohli’s new hairstyle gathers our attention and spreads like a wildfire but not something that is happening with the underrepresented of this country? If we do not want more innocent lives to be lost because of the irresponsible behaviour of our government and media, it is high time we start working on this.
Picture Credits: The Wire