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Meghalaya: Is Government Turning a Blind Eye Towards Illegal Coal Mining?

Ayaskant Das |
Meghalaya High Court has directed the disposal of illegally mined coal from the state in a time-bound manner
Coal Mines

“Around eight tons of illegally mined coal was recovered on 19 August from a rat-hole mine in West Khasi Hills district where an accident claimed the life of a worker. Source: Meghalaya Police”

New Delhi: The Bharatiya Janata Party-backed (BJP) Conrad Sangma government of Meghalaya has been directed to dispose of all illegally mined coal in the state in a time-bound manner even as it has allegedly turned a blind eye towards the menace, and the Modi government has evaded questions about it in Parliament.

On August 25, the Meghalaya High Court directed the state government to draw up a timeline for disposing “up to the last kilogram” of illegally mined coal in the state within a period of nine to ten months beginning September 1 2022, after preparing an inventory of it.

Based on a report filed by a one-person enquiry commission appointed by it, the high court further observed that there “appeared to be approximately 67,525 MT” of illegally mined coal which has been seized (but not disposed of) after 2016-17 even as Meghalaya government “alarmingly” failed to provide figures before this date. The high court had earlier said that the Meghalaya government had turned a “Nelson’s eye” towards illegal activities.

The directions by the high court also come in the backdrop of an accident in an alleged rat-hole mine in the West Khasi Hills district on August 19, which left one labourer dead and another seriously injured. Notwithstanding repeated accidents of this nature, the Meghalaya government has asserted that there is no illegal coal mining anywhere in the state.

The accident took place at a site where coal was being excavated illegally using the rat-hole mining method. The quarry owner who had employed the two labourers to excavate coal has been arrested following the registration of a First Information Report. Further investigations into the possibility of more instances of illegal coal mining in the region are underway. Raids are being conducted regularly,” West Khasi Hills Superintendent of Police, Herbert G Lyngdoh, told the NewsClick.

The Meghalaya police had recovered nearly eight tons of illegally mined coal – along with equipment used for mining – from Urak (Riangdim) in West Khasi Hills, where the accident took place. The quarry was located inside the deep jungles of Urak (Riangdim) and was only accessible by a two-hour journey by foot. Rat-hole coal mining in Meghalaya often takes place away from the gaze of law-enforcement agencies with the help of manual labourers employed at abysmally low wages to work in hazardous conditions.

Police said the illegal mine collapsed soon after two labourers entered it on August 19 armed with shovels and pickaxes. The labourer killed in the accident has been identified as Lependro Sangma (34) of Goraimari in the North Garo Hills district. The coal quarry owner, identified by police as Hubath R Sangma of West Khasi Hills, has been booked for “causing death by negligence.”

Within one week during the monsoon session, the Union Coal Ministry had evaded questions on illegal coal mining in Meghalaya in its responses to two separate queries.

On July 25, in response to a question in the Rajya Sabha asking for a comparative status of illegal coal mining in the states of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Meghalaya, Union Minister of Coal and Mines, Prahlad Joshi, said in a written reply that there “is no mine of Coal India Limited in the state of Meghalaya.” Providing details about the other two states, however, Joshi had said that 152.42 metric tons of coal, excavated through illegal mining in subsidiaries of Coal India Limited, were recovered from Jharkhand in 2021-22, while no recoveries at all were made in Chhattisgarh.

At present, any form of rat-hole coal mining is prohibited in Meghalaya following a ban imposed by the National Green Tribunal in November 2014. In a landmark order in July 2019, the Supreme Court revoked the blanket ban while allowing the completion of the process of transportation of coal that had already been mined before the 2014 judgement.

The apex court had further upheld individual and community rights over underground coal resources in Meghalaya – a fact that stems from the peculiar nature of land ownership of the state – allowing the state government to issue leases but only under the provisions of the Mines and Minerals (Development & Regulation) Act, 1957.

Further, in a statement laid on the table of the Rajya Sabha on August 1 in response to another question on coal mining in Meghalaya, the Union Coal Ministry had said that various steps are being undertaken to ensure the implementation of the guidelines that the green tribunal had issued in its order in November 2014.

The state government has been implementing an action plan prepared by the Committee constituted by the Hon’ble National Green Tribunal and approved by the Hon’ble NGT to close down the openings of mines which were created before the ban imposed by Hon’ble NGT in 2014 and is putting in place the safety measures around mine openings where there is still mineable coal reserves which can be utilised in future in accordance with the law,” the minister had stated in its reply.

But the one-person commission appointed by the Meghalaya High Court earlier this year has reported that guidelines issued by the green tribunal and the Supreme Court to prevent illegal coal mining are, if at all, rather poorly implemented. The commission has made damning observations about the lackadaisical attitude of the Conrad Sangma government to implement the guidelines in the five interim reports submitted so far, the latest of which was filed on August 23.

The “Committee of the National Green Tribunal” referred to by mines minister Joshi in the aforementioned reply was headed by Justice Brojendra Prasad Katakey, a retired judge of the Gauhati High Court.

Ironically, Justice Katakey was appointed by the Meghalaya High Court as its one-person commission to enquire if guidelines issued by the courts to prevent illegal mining are being implemented. He has reported that the guidelines of the courts are not being followed.

Barring a couple of instances, the guidelines issued by the green tribunal and the apex court have largely remained unimplemented. The committee appointed by the green tribunal had recommended the appointment of an independent agency to probe into illegal coal mining in Meghalaya many years ago. However, to date, no agency has been appointed to conduct a thorough probe,” a source in Meghalaya who has perused the high court-appointed commission’s reports told the NewsClick.

On April 19, Justice Katakey was appointed by the high court as its one-person enquiry commission in a suo moto Public Interest Litigation (PIL). The court took suo motu action in the matter in February 2022 following reports about the continuance of illegal coal mining in the state.

Numerous accidents over the past few years have established that illegal rat-hole mining in Meghalaya is continuing unabated despite the claims of the state government.

In an order issued upon the PIL on March 7 2022, a three-judge bench of the Meghalaya High Court headed by Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee said that there exists the possibility of “connivance of the local administration” in illegal coal mining activities. The bench issued this order following a field visit of the three judges accompanied by the Chief Secretary of Meghalaya.

At the request of the court last week, the Chief Secretary accompanied all three judges to visit Khliehriat [headquarters of East Jaintia Hills district] and its nearby areas. It was evident even while travelling along the highways that fresh coal had been deposited in mounds on both sides of the road spanning tens of kilometres. The coal looked to be obviously freshly mined as it was shiny black,” said the bench in its order.

The bench further observed, “It is alarming that District Magistrates, Sub-Divisional Officers and even Block Level Officers are in place along with their counterparts from the police right up to the Superintendent of Police; but all of them turn Nelson’s eye to such illegal activities.”

In a 41-page preliminary report dated May 23, Justice Katakey pointed at several agencies – including the Meghalaya government, Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board and the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change – that had abdicated their responsibilities to implement guidelines issued by the courts.

The preliminary findings in the report dated May 23, 2022, indicate that except for notifying The Meghalaya Minerals (Prevention of Illegal Mining, Transportation and Storage) Rules, 2022 as recently as March 24, 2022, “none of the directions issued by the Hon’ble Supreme Court … and the NGT have been complied with by the concerned authorities …,” said the high court bench in an order issued on May 24.

Government sources in Meghalaya said that to date, no coal mining leases had been handed out in the state. Despite repeated attempts by this correspondent, the Secretary of Meghalaya’s mining and geology department, E Kharmalki, was not available for comments. The judicial committee of Justice Katakey, appointed by the green tribunal earlier, had also highlighted in one of its reports how the smuggling of coal to Bangladesh by hoodwinking land customs stations along the international border has been spurring rat-hole coal mining in Meghalaya.

The entire network of illegal coal mining has been flourishing due to the absence of any surveillance on transportation of the mineral. The Supreme Court had allowed for the disposal of coal, which was mined before the green tribunal’s ban in November 2014 but was lying unutilised thereafter. Despite all these years, the mining mafia has been transporting freshly mined coal under the garb of minerals lying unutilised after the green tribunal ban,” said the source.

The writer is an independent journalist.

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