Naseeb (FATE) is a favourite word of coal-mine owners in the Jaintia Hills in Meghalaya. You can spend lakhs digging down to more than 100 feet and find no coal, while someone whose naseeb is favourable can dig some distance away from you and hit a coal seam before reaching 100 feet. But, of late, their naseeb has not been too good. One coal-mine owner from Sutnga village in the East Jaintia Hills district, the heart of Meghalayaâ€™s coal country, had just got back to his coal stockpiles from his fields where he had planted paddy. In five monthsâ€™ time, after the paddy was harvested, he planned to grow potatoes. He had to feed his family, he says, before adding that because of the coal trade, people had forgotten how to work in the fields.Â His coal stockpiles were lying in the open under overcast monsoon skies, and he was waiting for permission that would allow him to move the coal down to the depots in Beltola in Guwahati, from where it would go by train to factories in other parts of India.
While the countryâ€™s attention was focussed on the drama of the 2014 Lok Sabha election, an interim order passed on 17 April by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) went largely unnoticed, except in the state of Meghalaya. The NGT order placed a blanket ban on the mining and transport of coal in the northeastern state, which has an estimated 600 million tonnes of coal reserves. Nearly a month later, on 9 May, the Meghalaya government finally announced that it was going to implement the order. The state DGP had already issued an order for compliance on 25 April. In one stroke, an industry worth hundreds of crores of rupees annually and providing direct and indirect employment to thousands of people was brought to a halt. Trucks ferrying loads of coal down to the Assam and Bangladesh plains, once a common sight on the stateâ€™s highways, were now conspicuous by their absence. Across the three main regions of the state â€” the Jaintia Hills, the Khasi Hills and the Garo Hills â€” stockpiles of coal lay untouched, while migrant labourers from Bangladesh, Nepal and lower Assam have all gone home. The mining areas have turned into ghost towns.
Figures are hard to come by in this loosely regulated trade, and people are afraid of speaking out because of the sensitivity of the issue and its connection to the stateâ€™s politics.
On 9 June, at a packed hearing conducted under heavy security at the Meghalaya High Court in Shillong, Ranjan Chatterjee, an Expert Member of the NGT and former chief secretary of Meghalaya, dismissed an appeal by associations related to the coal trade seeking a modification of the interim orderâ€™s blanket ban, and ordered that the coal mines were to be sealed by the district commissioners, and provisions made after inspections to allow mine owners to dispose of their stockpiled coal. The state government has sent a report to the NGT regarding the quantum of stockpiled coal, and is waiting for permission to allow the miners to move their stocks.
The NGTâ€™s order came in the wake of a petition filed before it on 2 April in New Delhi by the All Dimasa Students Union (ADSU) from the Dima Hasao district (formerly North Cachar Hills district) in the neighbouring state of Assam. The ADSUâ€™s petition contended that unregulated underground mining (or rat-hole mining) and makeshift coal stockyards in the neighbouring Jaintia Hills were polluting streams and rivers flowing into Dima Hasao district by turning them acidic, specifically the Kharkor river that joins the Kopili river in Assam. The petition alleged widespread loss of aquatic life due to the acidic water, and even damage to the turbines and machinery of the North Eastern Electric Power Corporationâ€™s Kopili hydroelectric project. An earlier petition filed by a Shillong-based NGO mentioned the presence of child labourers in the mines. (In its cover story Half- Life of a Coal Child by Kunal Majumder, 3 July 2010, Tehelka had reported that the mines are worked by 70,000 child labourers.) Reports of the Central Pollution Control Board, the Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board and the Central Ground Water Commission regarding high level of acidity in the rivers and streams in the Jaintia Hills were consulted by the NGT while passing the order.
There are three peculiarities of coal mining in Meghalaya. The first is that all the mining is of the underground â€śrat-holeâ€ť variety, with most labourers working there coming from outside the state and even the country. The second is that all of the mines are privately owned, as all land in this tribal state is owned by different clans, and individuals lease or sell plots to investors and coal miners. The third is that the coal has a high sulphur content, which turns acidic the water that it comes into contact with.
Mining activity picked up in the state from the mid-1980s, and for the past three decades, money from the coal trade has exerted a powerful influence on the stateâ€™s economy, on its politics, and even on the law and order situation (armed groups extort money from the trade in the West Khasi Hills and the Garo Hills).
Officials at the state governmentâ€™s Directorate of Mineral Resources (DMR) are tight-lipped and will only say that they are complying with the NGT order. The DMR at present earns royalty at the rate of Rs 675 per metric tonne of coal (miners have to pay an additional sales tax of Rs 193 and a central tax of Rs 78 per tonne). The DMR royalty rate increased by almost 100 percent in 2012. By that time, coal from Malaysia, Australia and South Africa was available at Rs 3,000-4,000 per tonne, impacting prices from Meghalaya that were in the range of Rs 7,000-8,000 per tonne. Coal from the Jaintia Hills that was sent to the Beltola depot in Guwahati decreased in price from Rs 7,500 to Rs 3,500 per tonne, while coal from West Khasi Hills district exported to Bangladesh through Borsora went down from Rs 5,000 to Rs 2,800 per tonne.
Coal deposits in Meghalaya, especially in the Jaintia Hills, are located at a depth in horizontal seams that usually range in height from 1 to 3 ft, due to which rat-hole mining is a relatively less invasive method of extracting coal. Typically, a coal-mine owner or an investor would pay a few lakh rupees upfront to a landowner to start digging on his land. Geological surveying is expensive, hence the reliance on naseeb instead. JCBs would strip away the upper layer of earth from a plot, anywhere between 20×20 to 40×40 sq ft in area, and then groups of labourers would manually break down the rock and carry it out. Submersible pumps attached to tractor engines or to generators pumped out the water. The labourers were paid between Rs 10,000-20,000 per ft of rock, the rates going up below 100 feet. Coal seams usually occur at 90 to 100 ft, and from there the labourers would go sideways in â€śrat holesâ€ť from the walls of the pit. These could go up to 1,000 feet in length. These rat holes have to respect the above-the-ground boundary of the land. The main pit could go down to 200 or 300 ft, with wooden ladders for labourers going up and down, and cranes for winching up barrows filled with coal wheeled out from the rat holes. There was no safety equipment for the workers. Once coal was struck, it would usually be divided on a 50:50 basis between the investor and the landowner: one truckload for the former and one truckload for the latter. The water pumped out from the mines, especially after the monsoons when the mines were flooded, was acidic, and flowed across fields and into streams in the hills. Cases of land and mine grabbing occur as well. In the absence of some form of rathole mining, the only other way to extract the coal would be cutting open the earth in swathes to a great depth.
The whole system operated on challans, which could be purchased from the DMR in Shillong or its divisional mining offices in Jowai and Williamnagar, with each challan permitting the transport of a single truckload of coal of 9 tonnes (this was after a Supreme Court ruling in 2009, which was only implemented in Meghalaya in 2012). People familiar with the trade allege that much heavier loads were taken by trucks across the weighbridges, and that the challans could be purchased at a premium in tea shops and eateries in the mining areas.
Referring to the problem of acidic mine drainage, a middle-aged mine owner who operates about 15 quarries in the East Jaintia Hills says that if required they could construct tanks filled with gravel and sand to filter the water to reduce acidity. He alleges that the ban was planned and carried out because of political motivations. The Jaintia Hills has its own lobby of powerful coalmine-owning politicians. He points out that there are coal mines still operating on the Assam-side of the border in Dima Hasao. According to him, they are ready to cooperate with the government in implementing safety measures and environmentally-sound practices, but no one from the district councils or the state government has ever approached them, not even about the NGT ban for that matter.
The state government, meanwhile, has come in for criticism for not implementing its Mines and Minerals Policy Act 2012. All along, there existed no mining policy to oversee this industry, as it was said (erroneously it now seems) that mining fell under â€śtraditional practicesâ€ť, where villagers would extract some coal from a pit for their personal use and then cover up the pit again, protected by the Sixth Schedule.
The study report on levels of acidity in the Kopili river submitted by the ADSU has been criticised for not being based on a long-drawn survey, and opponents of the ban point out that coal mining continues under the Dima Hasao Automonous District Council on the Assam side of the border beside the Kopili river. Other criticisms have been that the ban was too sudden, and that it paid no attention to the thousands of people dependent on the trade, from labourers in the mines and the local people indirectly supported by the coal trade, such as owners and drivers of trucks and JCBs, owners of eateries and garages, even the women engaged in separating slate from the coal in the stockyards.
Many people from the villages work as supervisors in the coal trade and own businesses. Sutnga village must be one of the richest villages in India. Nearly every house is made of concrete, and the vehicle of choice is the white Maruti Gypsy, purchased from Shillong. In the village, in a mine ownerâ€™s smart new house, his wife was cooking rice in a pot on a fireplace. She remembers when they first started mining coal, about 35 years ago. The people from the village would dig mines outside the village, there were no stockyards and no outside labourers then, and the coal would be taken down to Guwahati in Shaktiman trucks. Markets like Lad Rymbai and Soo Kilo came up later, mainly for the labourers and truck drivers.
The highway from Shillong running through the Jaintia Hills to Silchar is now almost deserted. Earlier, trucks carrying coal and those returning to pick up more coal would rumble across the highway day and night, causing traffic jams, while the markets were crowded with labourers and as evening fell, gambling and drinking joints were packed with customers. Now the labourers have all gone back, and an uneasy calm hangs over the whole place.
In a shack near the coal stockpiles on the Sutnga road, the mine owner sipped Teacherâ€™s Whisky (diluted with cold water from a fridge) and chewed on slices of boiled cowâ€™s liver, while some other men played rummy and the shack owner cooked pork with black sesame seeds in the Jaintia style. He says that the money from the trade had disappeared overnight, and they were scared, because who knew what people were like in their hearts and that crimes would now increase. They are angry that the government, which never got involved in the trade in any way, has stepped in now, only to ban it. He was waiting for the government to allow them to start transporting the extracted coal once again.
At Soo Kilo on the way to Sutnga, the labourersâ€™ market is deserted and most shops are closed. A wine store owner says sales were not even a tenth of what they were earlier, and across the lane, at a general store, the workers were busy playing ludo.
At Phramer, about 10 km from Jowai on the road to Khlehriat, people have stockpiles of coal from places like Shangpung; they buy and hold the coal in the fields, separating the slate, grinding it, mixing it with the coal, and selling it when the prices rise. The labourers have all gone back now. In the market, a woman who used to sell 30-40 kg of fish a day by the afternoon, gets to sell hardly 1-2 kg now. A group of men connected with the stockpiling business also pointed out that mining was still being carried out on the other side of the Kopili in Dima Hasao. They were worried about their business, about their children, about people resorting to crime. At its peak in 2010, there were about 2,000 truckloads (at least 18,000 tonnes) going down to Guwahati from the Jaintia Hills every day; last year it came down to about 1,000 truckloads a day. Now, there are none.
While going from Shillong in the East Khasi Hills district through Jowai in the West Jaintia Hills district to the coal heartland of the East Jaintia Hills district, the coal trucks are absent on the highway, the tea stalls and roadside eateries are deserted, as are the garages and the tyre-repair shacks. A large part of the Jaintia Hills was dependent directly and indirectly on the money generated by the coal trade; stopping it all of a sudden has brought everything to a grinding halt. The state government and district councils, which earn royalty from the trade, have done little over the years to regulate the trade in any way, be it with regard to the environment or workersâ€™ safety.
Using the RTI Act, environmental activists from the Jaintia Hills have shown that the coal trade in the state falls within the purview of the Ministry of Coal and the Ministry of Labour, and that the Sixth Schedule does not exempt the state from Central regulations. In fact, the Sixth Schedule makes no mention of mining and is only concerned with the setting up of District Councils to look after the welfare of tribals and preserve their culture and way of life. These activists also point out the environmental degradation caused by deforestation in the mining areas and acid mine drainage (AMD) into streams and rivers like the Lukha and Myntdu. There have been recurring reports of fish dying in the downstream areas, and farm land made unfit for cultivation by the pumping out of untreated, acidic water from the mines.
The AMD problem is not unsolvable. Coal India Limited, which operates three open-cast coal mines and one underground coal mine in upper Assam, chemically treats water from its mines to normalise acidity levels. However, the unregulated nature of mining in Meghalaya makes this problematic. Similarly, there have been cases of fish dying in the Dikhow river in upper Assam due to unregulated coal mining in the upstream areas of the Naga Hills.
A lawyer representing the interests of landowners says they would further appeal against the order, pointing out that the NGT is going beyond environmental issues by looking at whether mining is legal or illegal. He sees mining being permitted in the future, but not in its current unregulated form. He also feels that the mine owners should have been given time to deal with their issues.
Scientific extraction on a large scale will mean small operators will be in trouble. The lawyer says the Meghalaya government earned roughly Rs 400 crore officially last year from the coal trade (extraction of 58 lakh metric tonnes of coal is the figure for the entire state on the DMR website for 2009-10, the last recorded year, out of which 37 lakh metric tonnes came from the Jaintia Hills and the rest from the Garo Hills and the Khasi Hills).
Members of the ADSU say that people in Dima Hasao district and other downstream areas are happy with the ban, as many people depend on river water in the absence of public health engineering schemes. The Jaintia Hills Autonomous District Council has reportedly approached the Dima Hasao Autonomous District Council to see if a solution can be worked out. The ban also assumes significance in the light of recent reports of foreign-funded NGOs working to stall mining and infrastructure projects in India.
Over the decades, an entire interlinked chain comprising mine owners, labourers, truck drivers and small businesses like eateries and garages and tyre-repair shops has come about. A lot of outside labour is involved, but that is inevitable given the low rural population in the state. A blanket ban wipes out this economy at one go. Conversations with traders show that business has gone down in Jowai, Shillong and even Guwahati, as the everyday circulation of cash from the trade has disappeared.
The area comprising Bara Bazar or Iewduh, Paltan Bazar and Mawlonghat in Shillong is the main wholesale market for most of the Khasi Hills and the Jaintia Hills. A wholesale trader in Bara Bazar says sales for the entire market are down by nearly 40 percent after the ban.
Police officials in the Jaintia Hills are anticipating a rise in crimes. And if the ban stays, armed groups could start issuing extortion notes in the Jaintia Hills as well. Cement factories in the Jaintia Hills (which operate on leases for limestone mining issued by local landowners with the permission of the district council) that run on coal say they have cut back on production and are awaiting the release of the coal stockpiles. But there are unconfirmed reports not only of coal being delivered to the factories by night, but also of mining being continued in far-flung areas of the state.
The next hearing on the matter by the NGT is slated for 1 August. Meanwhile, the NGT has asked the state government to discuss ways of regulating the coal trade in consultation with the Ministry of Environment and ForestsÂ (MoEF) and the Ministry of Coal. No matter who extracts the coal from now on and at what scale, they will most likely have to treat the water discharge from the mines to normalise acidity levels, introduce steps for afforestation in the mining belt, put safety procedures in place for miners, and enforce a strict ban on child labour. Even if all these measures were to be put in place, Meghalaya might find its market for coal being squeezed by importers from foreign countries who are already offering coal at a cheaper rate.
Ankush Saikia is the author of The Girl from Nongrim Hills