Raju Das

SHILLONG, Feb 13 – The Meghalaya Government has misrepresented before the National Green Tribunal (NGT) about coal mining ban in South Garo Hills and it took the lives of four persons to expose the lie.

During a hearing of the Tribunal here on January 24, the Meghalaya government had informed the Tribunal that coal mining has been banned in Garo Hills through an order of the Deputy Commissioner and that the ban was in force – but that wasn’t the truth. In fact, the ban on coal mining in South Garo Hills was revoked on October 25 last year (a copy of the order is available with The Assam Tribune) and mining was on even when the Tribunal had had its sitting here.

After the January 24 hearing, the Tribunal read in its order: “It was also pointed out that as per order dated 20.5.2013, the District Magistrate passed an order under Section 133 of the Code of Criminal Procedure directing that coal mines in the whole of South Garo Hills district should be closed with immediate effect, until further orders and the order is in force even today”.

It may be mentioned here that the Tribunal held its sitting here to seek answers from the State Government on the fate of 15 coal miners reportedly missing in a coal mine tragedy in South Garo Hills in 2011. The Tribunal had ordered the State Government to take efforts to find out about the fate of those miners or at least retrieve their bodies or contact their families.

It is true that coal mining was banned under Section 133 IPC (public nuisance) in May 2013, but that was largely because of the Monsoon, when mining becomes even more hazardous in the dangerous rat-hole coal mines.

But the South Garo Hills Deputy Commissioner, Chinmay P Gotmare revoked the order following a request from the Joint Action Committee, Nangalbibra – a consortium of local coal miners. The local coal miners gave a written assurance to the Deputy Commissioner that they would look after the interest and safety of the miners. In the letter, some miners had claimed that their livelihood was at stake due to the closure of the mines. The mining ban was lifted based on that assurance.

But tragedy struck again and in February four miners – Ratna Barman, Debokantho Barman, Bishwanath Barman and Piterson Marak – lost their lives after the walls of the mine in Garegattim, South Garo Hills caved in. The coal mine owner at first fled but was later arrested. He is now out on bail.

“We have arrested the coal owner, but he is now out on bail,” South Garo Hills, Superintendent of Police, DR Marak said.

Regarding the overall coal mining scenario in the State, the State government also presented before the Tribunal a copy of the Meghalaya Mines and Minerals Policy 2012, which came into force on November 5, 2012.

Although rat-hole mining has not been banned, the government has said that there must be an entry as well as an exit point, which means that there must be two openings in the mine. The rat-hole mines traditionally have one entry point and in the event of wall collapse the miners face a near death situation. It is uncertain that even this minor provision of having an entry and exit points is being implemented; the recent deaths of the four miners being a pointer.

Many miners have lost their lives in the rat-hole coal mines of the State over the years. The highest number of tragedy in a single case was the 2011 mishap in South Garo Hills for which the NGT took up a suo moto case.