DEPTHS OF DESPAIR
The Meghalaya mining accident has shed a blinding light on some dark realities of Indian governance
A horror story from Meghalaya that has been unfolding ever since it broke out last month is symptomatic of many things that are scarily wrong with this country.
To start from the beginning: On the thirteenth night of December at remote Ksan village in the Saipung area of East Jaintia Hills district, some 13 miners were reported to be dangerously trapped inside a coal pit after it was unexpectedly flooded with water from a nearby river.
In one of the earliest news reports that came out the subsequent day, Sylvester Nongtnger, the district police chief of East Jaintia Hills, said: "We are yet to recover the dead bodies from the pit.”
He also said the preliminary rescue efforts were in full swing and the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) were soon to join the rescue operation. But his first words rang grimly portentious, even if unintended – and they do increasingly so in hindsight.
By the evening of that day, 72 members of the NDRF, 23 from SDRF and five from the Fire and Emergency service had already arrived and done as much as they could, which primarily involved pumping the water out of the 370-foot coal pit with the help of generators, but the ones available fell way short of what was needed for the water level in the pit to recede.
In the meanwhile, the police launched a manhunt to arrest the owner and managers of the coal mine, who were already on the run.
But why was that necessary, given this was an apparent natural tragedy?
Because the unfortunate incident happened at an illegal mining site. Illegal because it was a rat-hole mine, the kind where unscientific, risky and unapproved methods were used to procure coal. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) had banned this kind of mining in the Northeastern state since April 17, 2014, due to its negative environmental impact, particularly on some downstream rivers.
On the very day the news was covered by the national media, Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma released a statement saying this: "Appropriate action will be taken at appropriate time against the people who are involved in the illegal mining and this is not acceptable to us."
That sounded like lip service to many; after all, it is common knowledge in Meghalaya that coal mine accidents are not so uncommon there thanks largely to rat hole mining.
On December 15, the NDRF received the sonar equipment (that use sound waves to detect underwater objects) and underwater cameras they had sought from Guwahati but even those failed to locate any of the trapped miners due to extremely poor visibility. The sustained water level in the coal pit despite the continuous pumping did not help matters.
This made the NDRF officials advise the district officials to seek "submersible water pumps" from the Oil Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) to reduce the water level.
The next day, the Mines Safety director general arrived on the scene and advised the district commissioner to request technical assistance and most powerful pumps from Coal India to drain out the mine more effectively and quickly, according to an official source who requested anonymity. The DG also sought a lab test of water samples from the mine and the nearby river, the result of which arrived two days later to ascertain that water from the river was still seeping into the coal pit.
Another two days later Jaswant Singh Gill, the man who had famously led a rescue mission 29 years ago at a coal mine in Raniganj, West Bengal, arrived from Punjab and also called for high-power pumps after assessing the situation. In addition, he advised that the water entry points to the mine be plugged.
Citing Gill’s recommendations, East Jaintia Hills deputy commissioner Federick M Dopth promptly sent a written request to the Meghalaya additional chief secretary seeking better equipment, including ten 100-horsepower pumps.
However, by this time Christmas was around the corner and the rescue operation slowed down to a standstill. A media report quoted an NDRF official on site as saying that his team shut down the two pumps at its disposal while all government officials were busy holidaying.
Well over a week had lapsed since Dopth sent that letter when Coal India Limited announced that it was going to launch a rescue operation soon after the necessary equipment and manpower was ready at the site.
The cause of that delay was attributed to Dopth’s request being under review in view of the potential damage that the weight of the heavy pumps could cause to the roads in the area. And it took over six days for the government to ascertain from experts that only “minor repairs” may be needed for the roads used for transportation of those pumps.
General Manager of CIL's Northeastern Coalfields, J. Borah revealed that after his organisation received the request for help on the evening of December 26, he sent a preliminary team the very next day, which was to be followed by a 10-member team, including four engineers and six surveyors, two days later. However, he admitted, it would take some time for all the pumps, pipes and other search and survey equipments to arrive as those were being sent by road from different establishments of the public sector company.
Suddenly at around this time a sense of urgency was evident in the tone and words of Chief Minister Sangma who expressed hope that CIL should airlift their water pumps to the accident site.
Meanwhile, NDRF Assistant Commandant Santosh Kumar Singh revealed that his rescuers team had dived inside the main shaft of the coal pit but failed to locate any of the miners.
When the media asked him whether his team had lost hope of getting the trapped miners out, Singh said: "Rescuers never lose hope. We are all putting our best efforts to rescue them. We are waiting for the desired pumps to be in place and the state government is doing its best with all its resources. Therefore, we are very hopeful."
However, his optimism was not shared by the relatives of the trapped miners.
"It has been fifteen days since December 13 when they got trapped inside the pit without air. If God is willing, they may come back alive," said Adil Hussain, who was camping at the mining site.
On that day, another team from NDRF comprised of 21 firefighters from Bhubaneswar arrived in Guwahati on board a C-130J Super Hercules and was headed for the site, which was located 220 km away.
"The Odhisha firefighters were requisitioned by National Disaster Management Authority. They are on the way with several high-tech equipment, including 10 high-power pumps to be used in search and rescue operations," said Nongtnger, the district police chief of East Jaintia Hills.
On December 29, the firefighters finally arrived, along with a 15-member team of Indian Navy divers.
By this time, the two 25 horsepower pumps had been rendered ineffective since Christmas eve due to heavy workload.
One of the biggest problems for the rescue workers in evacuating the trapped miners to higher ground from day one was the lack of a map of the mining site. As the district authorities did not have a "blue print" – thanks in no small part to the coal mine’s illegal status – the rescue operation was always going to be something like shooting in the dark, Borah admitted.
On December 30, the Indian Navy and NDRF began their major operation but ended up with the same results as before – there was no sign of the miners.
The divers spent a couple of hours about 80 feet inside the pit in an inflatable raft with all the necessary gear, but couldn't locate anything due to high accumulation of water in the pit, NDRF Assistant Commandant Singh said, adding that a decision had been made to “resume pumping of water from the pit on December 31 with 100 horsepower pumps from Odisha fire services”.
Singh also revealed that Navy and NDRF divers would simultaneously dive into the coal pit during the water extraction in order to get to the bottom of the pit. The Navy would also use the underwater Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) as part of that day’s rescue efforts.
Meanwhile, the CIL team continued to survey the abandoned coal mines located at the adjoining areas of the site. " We will soon get one of the six submersible high-capacity equipment that can dewater 500 gallon per minute," said A.K. Bharali, General Manager of CIL, Kolkata.
The Odisha Fire Services crew had also placed their 100 horsepower pumps at the tragedy site from the morning of that day to dewater the pit.
The next day, on New Year’s Eve, the Indian naval drivers finally found a few things with the help of the UROV. "Two divers dived beneath the surface of the coal mine with UROV and found that there are some wooden structure, coal lying beneath and one rat-hole with coal at its mouth after spending three hours inside the flooded mine," said R. Susngi, a spokesperson for the rescue operations.
But there was no trace of what they were really looking for.
"The Navy divers said that if the level of the water could be drained out further, the search for the trapped miners will be feasible," the spokesperson said.
"At present the site is cleared for the Odisha firefighters to start draining out the water from the main shaft where the miners are trapped. The firefighters are setting the high-capacity 100 horsepower pumps in nearby abandoned mines to enable to operate the pumps," Susngi explained.
Meanwhile, CIL’s Borah revealed that one of the eight submersible pumps, which can drain out 500 gallon of water per minute, had reached the area. "Two more pumps will be reaching the site and another two tomorrow along with the auxiliary pipes and other materials which are not available in Jaintia Hills or Shillong," Borah stated.
Amid all this action, Gill, the famous mining expert and award-winning rescuer, pointed out something undeniably evident: He expressed disappointment with the “lack of coordination” between the state government and rescuing agencies.
"In this kind of an emergency situation, we expect they should work like a machine and synchronized like a machine," Gill said.
After all, it had been 18 days to the dreadful incident, and the necessary rescue equipment was still arriving in batches in its own sweet time.
The year changed to 2019.
During the January 2-3 period, when the Odisha firefighters and NDRF rescuers began dewatering the coal mine – nine days after the procedure was temporarily suspended due to lack of functional pumps – with the high-capacity submersible pumps yet to arrive, the families of the trapped miners were deeply despondent.
"We have lost all hope to see him alive again. I just wish they retrieve the bodies of my sons so that we can solemnly perform their last rites and pray for them," said Krishna Limbu, the brother-in-law Assh Bahadur Limbu, who is among those trapped in the mine.
"It is only God's wish, if he still wishes them to be alive … Like the other family members of those trapped miners, I too have lost all hope," said Krishna amid sobs.
The fact that the authorities had been woefully slow in responding to the emergency situation in Meghlaya was out in the open when the Supreme Court of India – acting upon a public interest litigation – called for "prompt, immediate and effective steps" to augment the rescue operations in Meghalaya and expressed immense dissatisfaction over the outcome of measures taken so far.
The bench of Justice A.K. Sikri and Justice S. Abdul Nazeer said that in a life-and death situation for the miners trapped in the flooded mines, adequate steps have not been taken and there was a lack of co-ordination, echoing Gill’s point of view on the matter.
"We are not satisfied with the rescue operations. No matter whether they are all dead or some alive, they should have been taken out. We pray to God they are alive," said Justice Sikri taking a grim view of the ongoing rescue operations.
Justice Sikri also expressed wonderment over why the Army was not roped in yet to help in the rescue operations. "At least the Union of India should do something...it should take the help of Army which has volunteered to help the rescue operations. Why can't you take the help of Army? People are there for rescue operation but there is no co-ordination,” he said.
The next day, the apex court asked the Centre and Meghalaya to submit a status report on the progress made in the rescue efforts in Meghalaya even as it lambasted the failure of the authorities concerned to make serious efforts in the beginning.
When Solicitor General (SG) Mehta reasoned that the mine was illegal, Justice Sikri said: "Why should poor workers trapped in the mine suffer? You take whatever steps you want to take against the owner of the mine."
Meanwhile, the subject had become a political football.
Soon after Christmas, Congress president Rahul Gandhi slammed Prime Minister Narendra Modi for not providing necessary help to rescue the trapped miners. "15 miners have been struggling for air in a flooded coal mine for two weeks. Meanwhile, Prime Minister struts about on Bogibeel Bridge posing for cameras," Gandhi said on social media platform Twitter, referring to the Prime Minister’s inauguration of a bridge in Assam.
"His government refuses to organise high pressure pumps for the rescue. Prime Minister please save the miners," added Gandhi tagging a media report stating that the rescue efforts were hampered by lack of effective equipment.
Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju had a fitting response.
"No politics on tragedy please, Rahul Gandhi. We have been helping the state government with all possible means. But the unsafe illegal mining activities were due to the negligence of the previous Congress government," he said referring to the Congress which ruled the state before the Conrad Sangma-led National People's Party came to power in March last year.
Just before the turn of the year, Congress women workers staged a demonstration at the Meghalaya Congress headquarters in Shillong against the Conrad Sangma-led government for the delay in rescuing the trapped miners.
"The government was in its slumber and woke up only after Congress President Rahul Gandhi lamented on the slow progress of the rescue operation," State Mahila Congress President Joplin Scott Shylla said.
Three days later, Leader of Opposition in Meghalaya Assembly Mukul Sangma decried the National People's Party (NPP)-led government for its failure to save the lives of the miners.
"It is shameful and they should be strongly condemned for their insensitivity. They have brought shame to the state and the nation," the veteran Congress leader stated.
"The responsibility of the government is to ensure safety. After so many days, was there any indication to show their seriousness? This reflects their lack of sensitivity which has antagonized the people, especially the families of the victims," Sangma said.
"Due process of law has to be initiated against the authorities concerned based on the culpability aspect for not responding on time in saving precious lives,” he added
Noting that the illegal mining going on in the East Jaintia Hills, exposed “the NPP-led government's lies", Sangma said it appeared as if the government led by Chief Minister Sangma was facilitating and encouraging illegal mining.
"The order of the NGT is very clear that the onus to stop illegal mining and comply with the NGT directives lies with the Chief Secretary and the DGP and all other officers, starting from the Chief Secretary and Director General of Police (DGP)," Sangma pointed out.
Later in the evening, in response to rising calls nationwide for effective implementation of the ban on rat hole mining in the northeastern state, the Meghalaya Chief Minister said this in a videotaped statement: “Banning coal mining is not really a solution right now. What the correct solution now is to ensure that such activities must be regulated. Environment and safety of miners must be given a priority. The regulation must be such that the economic condition should not be affected.”
Claiming fervently that his government had been making a lot of efforts to stop illegal mining activities, Sangma explained: "This place where the incident (trapped miners) occurred is about 45 km inside from the main town. It is difficult for the agencies and the police to keep a watch. The best way would be to come out with a regulated mining, safe mining procedure and allow mining to take place keeping in mind the environment aspects and safety of miners."
Calling on the opposition Congress not to do politics over the mining disaster, the Chief Minister said it was more important to “continue our efforts towards ensuring that such incidents do not recur”.
However, that was precisely the concern of many cave experts of the country, who noted that the mining disaster in Meghalaya could have been prevented if the state mining policy was in place.
"We have heard of such coal mining disasters in the past. But the government is still not serious at all to come up with a policy to regulate mining activities and prevent such a disaster," said Tenzing Norgay National Adventure awardee Brian Dermot Kharpran Daly, also the founding member of Meghalaya Adventurers Association.
What’s worse, a recently release report from a three-member committee of the NGT revealed that the coal mining lobby was not only existent but also thriving in Meghalaya and the government there was well aware of the illegal coal mining going on in East Jaintia Hills.
Justice BP Katakey, a retired judge of the Gauhati High Court who was heading the three-member probe panel, was quoted by a television news channel as saying that his team saw freshly mined coal in East Jaintia Hills during their visit to the sites.
"We asked for reports from the DCs (district collectors). The DC of East Jaintia Hills sent us a report in which he wrote that coal mining was going on illegally. In November again in a field visit we observed coal mining was going on," Katakey told NDTV.
"The DC of East Jaintia Hills had sent us the report on illegal mining months before the tragic mishap, so it's obvious what was happening," he added.
In view of that report, which also noted that the majority of mines in Meghalaya were running without a lease or licence, the NGT slapped a staggering fine of 100 crore on the Meghalaya government.
While discussions and actions around such preventive, punitive and remedial steps are well and good, there can be little explaining for the dreadful delay by the authorities in responding to an extreme emergency situation, especially during the crucial first 10 days, in which 15 lives were in grave danger. And there can be no excuses for the inhuman acts of those, particularly the babu in charge of the rescue operation, who chose to go on leave during Christmas, further slowing down rescue efforts.
The words of Solibar Rahman best summed up the misery of the families of the trapped miners as well as the cold apathy and callous incompetence of the authorities.
Formerly working at the illegal coal mines of Meghalaya, Rahman, a native of Bhangnamari village in Assam’s Chirang district was seen earlier this month at the mining disaster site in Ksan, seeking permission from the Meghalaya government to rappel down the coal mine in search of his son who had not returned from there since December 13.
"I have worked in the coal mines of Meghalaya for 30 years. I know the tricks... how to climb up and down the mines. I want to go there once the water is flushed out. My son is there and I must go look for him," Rahman said.
A first-generation miner who worked in different coal mines of Meghalaya between 1983 and 2012, Rahman said he had seen many deaths in coal mines in his 30 years of work there.
“I have taken out bodies of my colleagues from the coal mines,” he recalled with much sadness.
He also said this: "The government should have used high-powered pumps from day one to rescue the trapped miners. It's not possible to dry out a mine by using normal pumps … I am an illiterate person but I knew from day one that pumps with more than 120 HP will be required to pump out the water. How come the government is now aware of that?”
More important than the politicisation of the matter, the investigations into it, and judgements passed over it, Rahman’s question begs an answer that is yet to be given.
As India First went to press, two more people were killed when another illegal coal mine, at Mooknor, Jalyiah village, in East Jaintia Hills collapsed. The horror continues.