Guwahati: Fifteen coal miners are still trapped in Meghalaya and are yet to be rescued from the East Jaintia Hills.

A citizens’ report prepared by a group of 22 activists revealed that the Meghalaya government was complicit in helping the miners extract and transport coal. This is in blatant violation of both the National Green Tribunal (NGT) and Supreme Court orders.

The report titled Curse of unregulated coal mining in Meghalaya was submitted to the Supreme Court on January 7, and it urged the apex court to hear the case on January 15.

The second part of the report, ‘How and why unregulated & illegal coal mining in Meghalaya continued even after the orders of National Green Tribunal & Hon’ble Supreme Court of India?’ was released by the activist group on Sunday and it was submitted to the Supreme Court seeking a stop to coal mining in the state.

The citizens’ report comes three weeks after 15 miners were trapped inside a rat-hole coal mine in Meghalaya.

The rescue operations by the Indian Navy divers, National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and the firefighters of the Odisha Fire Services are ongoing, but so far, they have failed to trace any miner inside the hole.

The activist group had submitted its first report to the top court in the first week of December and had named several politicians of the state, who allegedly own coal mines themselves or hold them in the names of their relatives. 

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The 380-page second citizens’ report highlights how illegal mining has continued despite the ban, and the report has been compiled by substantiating facts and figures based on RTI information, CAG reports, research papers, affidavits filed by different individuals and published news in various newspapers.

“When on the 17th April 2014, the National Green Tribunal issued its orders banning unregulated and unscientific ‘rat hole’ mining, there was a ray of hope for Meghalaya. But through legal maneuvers, administrative and political tricks played on behalf of the mining lobby, the intent, and purpose of this historic order has been bent beyond recognition. We hope that this report will shine some light on the dark world that unregulated coal mining has wrought in our society and help citizens and judiciary to look for ways to dismantle the structures of illegality which is fast taking over our land.

With a large number of deaths of coal mine labour, increasing public health crisis, destruction of the ecosystem and everyday criminality in the coal mining area, it is high time that we as a society take a strong position vis-à-vis unregulated coal mining in Meghalaya. It is time for the protection of the larger common good as against giving relief to the few exploitative coal barons,” the report said.

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The report highlighted various cases of irregularities and stated that the Meghalaya government has not been a neutral party in the whole case. They have actively colluded in helping coal miners find ways to overestimate extracted coal so that they could freshly mine coal and profit out of it. The government should have strictly implemented the notified guidelines of its own committee and should have opposed any extension of the transportation period. It should have also ensured that there was no revision of the verified amount of extracted coal beyond 77,04,701.73 MT.

“When the NGT allowed a temporary relief to the coal miners to transport their coal in a period of three months starting October 2014 after advance payment of royalty, one did not foresee the way this window of transportation would keep on getting extended. The committee which the tribunal had set up had tried to establish guidelines and benchmarks so that already extracted coal could be transported quickly in a transparent, time-bound and accountable manner within three months. Three months was an adequate amount of time to transport this coal keeping in view the experience of pre-ban period when April would have been a leaner season with respect to the amount of coal leftover for transportation.

But the coal miners and transporters wilfully assisted by the government via its misleading representations to the tribunal kept getting transportation orders extended. In total, from the time of the interim ban till date or 1751 days or 4 years, 9 months, 15 days or 57 months & 15 days altogether, coal miners have got 987 days of transportation period (32 Months, 1 Week, 5 Days),” the report said.

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The report also stated that for every one square km of the area, there are 52 coal mines and there are a total of 24,626 coal mines in Jaintia Hills.

“According to the RTI reply dated 29th May 2018, a total of 71117 MTCs of transport challans were issued between November 2017 to 21 March 2018. Each transport challan would be to transport 9MT of coal per truck after payment of advance royalty/penalty and contributions to the Meghalaya Environment Restoration Fund. So it is easy to quantify how much coal could have been transported in the period mentioned above? 71117 x 9MT= 6,40,053 MT. Now to get the seventh transportation order from Hon’ble Supreme Court, Government of Meghalaya and the appellant miners and transporters had claimed that 7.8 lakh tonnes of coal were left to be transported. Which therefore means that after the sixth transportation period ended there should have been only 7,80,000-6,40,053= 1,39,947.

But this was not to be so – coal miners appeal for a further extension of the transportation period from Hon’ble Supreme Court by misleading the court and claiming that there is 5,00,000 MT coal left to be transported and based on this false and misleading information they get eighth transportation order from 28th March 2018–31st May 2018. But even this is not enough to transport the non-existent 5 lakh tonnes of coal and based on another false and misleading claim by the Government of Meghalaya and the coal miners and transporters that there is 1,76,655 metric tonnes of coal left they get a transportation window from 4th December 2018 to 31st January 2019. So how did the coal mining lobby and Government of Meghalaya keep conjuring up already extracted coal before the tribunal and the court?” the report said.

The citizens’ report also said, “These examples of blatant violations of both the National Green Tribunal orders and Hon’ble Supreme Court orders by the coal miners becomes much more galling if one sees it in the context of wilful collusion by Government of Meghalaya in the illegalities. Rather than work towards finding ways to implement the orders by the Tribunal, Government of Meghalaya has been bending over backward to accommodate the whims and fancies of its minuscule minority of coal barons”.

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Recently, the chief minister of Meghalaya, Conrad Sanga said that the state government has taken strict action against illegal coal mining.

The 22-member activist group including Agnes Kharshing, Amita Sangma, Angela Rangad, Patricia Mukhim and Michael N Syiem said in their report that – “The National Green Tribunal's landmark order regarding Unregulated and illegal coal mining in our state, therefore, came as a wakeup call for Meghalaya society at large. This order has been criticised and appealed against by a small section of locals most of who are coal mine owners, transporters, politicians and administrators who have 'illegally' benefitted out of this unregulated mining and who want things to get back to business as usual. Coal miners and politicians who are miners, truck owners, weighbridge operators etc. have even filed appeals with the Hon’ble Supreme Court, asking the Hon'ble Court to rescind NGT orders so that mining can once again begin. The protection guaranteed by the constitution for us tribals is not as the coal miners and transporters are claiming. Their claims are not based on social, legal and historical reality.”

“We hope that the Hon'ble Supreme Court will look into the existing realities of Meghalaya, its problems, illegalities and come to a decision which is rooted in the concept of larger common good and communitarian ideals that the 6th schedule seeks to protect and to enable a situation where natural resources contributes to an equitable development for all while protecting and reviving Meghalaya’s ecology,” the report said.