The fate of 15 miners trapped inside an illegal coal mine in Meghalaya's Jaintia Hills district remains shrouded in mystery even after 15 days of the tragedy. The search operations had been called off by the Meghalaya government as high-pressure pumps to help in the rescue are not available with the state government. However, the ruling NPP-BJP (National People's Party-Bharatiya Janata Party) combine in Meghalaya said the state government was making all efforts to rescue the trapped miners.
About 20 miners on December 13 entered a 370-foot-deep illegal coal mine in Ksan area of Lumthari village in Meghalaya that is owned by Krip Chullet, a businessman. After reaching the bottom of the pit, they entered horizontal manholes, often termed as 'rat-holes', as each just about fits one person. Five persons were able to climb out of the flooded mine, leaving the others behind.
Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad K Sangma refuted allegations that his government was not proactive and said that the administration along with the NDRF had worked really hard to trace the miners, but unfortunately, the operation did not yield any result. The miners were trapped after water from the nearby Lytein river suddenly gushed into the pit.
A senior Meghalaya Home Department official has said the police force in East Jaintia Hills district, where the mine is located, do not have adequate personnel to deal with the problem.
Union Minister Kiren Rijiju said the Centre was helping the state government in its rescue efforts.
According to Jayanta Goswami, editor of East Mojo, a Northeast-based news portal, NDRF suspects that the mines are interconnected. As soon as the water is drained out of one pit, it fills the other pits and since the mines are interconnected, so within a few hours all the pits are again full of water causing inconvenience to the rescue teams.
Another obstacle for the NDRF is that it can conduct operations up to depth having 30-35 feet but the miners are stuck at a depth of 70 feet. To access such a depth high-pressure pumps are required which neither the Meghalaya government nor the other state governments possess. These types of pumps are available only with Coal India and Oil India Limited.
CM Sangma has written to Coal India seeking transportation of their high powered pumps to the mine to help drain the water out.
According to The Shillong Times, Sangma asserted that 12 lakh litres of water have been pumped out. "There is no question of calling off the operation and the operation is going to go to a different level now...We will continue trying and give more efforts," The Shillong Times reported quoting Sangma.
He also added that the MHA is in touch and is helping the state government.
Another hardship that awaits the state government and the rescue team is that the proper metalled roads connecting the site of the mine is 50-60 kms away from the Jaintia hills and the time taken to reach the place is around five to six hours. To top it all, the roads are in a deplorable and condition and to carry the pumps on those roads will be a herculean task, added Goswami.
Nearly 100 personnel of the national and state disaster response forces, along with the police, are waiting for the water to recede about 30 feet as divers can do their job once the water level subsides up to that level. Currently, the water level in the mine shaft is about 70 feet.
Locals are fearing that a digger may have accidentally punctured the walls of the cave following which the river water would have gushed into it on December 13.
The state government on December 22 had announced Rs 1 lakh interim relief to the family members of each of the 15 miners.
Rat-hole mining involves digging of narrow tunnels, usually 3-4 feet high, for workers to enter and extract coal. The horizontal tunnels are often termed "rat-holes", as each just about fits one person. According to government reports, the coal mining industry was among the biggest revenue earners for the state, generating about Rs 700 crore annually, prior to its ban in 2014.
The National Green Tribunal (NGT) had banned unscientific mining of coal in Meghalaya using small horizontal holes along the coal seams in 2014.
However, illegal practices continue unabated in the state, putting lives at risk every day.
Transportation of already extracted coal is intermittently allowed for exporting the mineral to Assam and Bangladesh. The NGT had first allowed transportation in 2015 and recently the Supreme Court had allowed transportation of already extracted coal till January 31.