New Delhi: Rescue teams are trying to trace 15 workers trapped in a rat-hole mine in Meghalaya for 18 days. Over the years, indiscriminate mining of coal, especially in the state, has taken a toll on its ecology and put many lives at risk. Mint analyses the perils of this mining method.

What is rat-hole mining?

It is a primitive and hazardous method of mining for coal, with tunnels that are only 3-4 feet in diameter (hence, rat-hole), leading to pits ranging from 5-100 sq. mt deep. There are two types of rat-holes: when dug into the ground these are vertical shafts leading to the mines where horizontal tunnels are dug; the second type is where horizontal holes are dug directly in the hillsides to reach coal seams (bed of coal). The coal is taken out manually, loaded into a bucket or a wheelbarrow and dumped on a nearby un-mined area. From here, it is carried to larger coal dumps near highways for trade and transportation.

Rat-hole mining is a primitive and hazardous method of mining for coal, with tunnels that are only 3-4 feet in diameter (hence, rat-hole), leading to pits ranging from 5-100 sq. mt deep. Photo: Getty Images
Rat-hole mining is a primitive and hazardous method of mining for coal, with tunnels that are only 3-4 feet in diameter (hence, rat-hole), leading to pits ranging from 5-100 sq. mt deep. Photo: Getty Images

How did the recent tragedy happen?

On 13 December, at least 15 workers were trapped in a 320-350 feet-deep coal mine in the East Jaintia Hills district of Meghalaya after it was flooded by waters of the nearby Lytein river. Rescue operations led by the National Disaster Response Force and the Indian Navy are on to locate the trapped workers. On Friday, Shillong member of Parliament Vincent Pala said “there seems to be no chance for the people there; and those who survive, they run away since mining is illegal". The recent mishap is one of several such accidents that have taken place over the past few years, leading to the death of workers.

Is rat-hole mining illegal?

Yes. The National Green Tribunal banned rat-hole mining in Meghalaya in 2014 on a petition that said acidic discharge from the mines was polluting the Kopili river. But the practice continues unabated.

How does it hamper the environment?

Water from rivers and streams in the mining area has become unfit for drinking and irrigation, and is toxic to plants and animals. A study by the North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong, says the Kopili river has turned acidic due to the discharge of acidic water from mines and the leaching of heavy metals. Layers of rock above the coal removed during mining contain traces of iron, manganese and aluminium that get dissolved from mining sites through the acid run-off or are washed into streams as sediment.

How does the ban affect local people?

Mining has provided jobs to local people. Following the ban, there are demands for rehabilitation or alternative employment. It was a major issue in the assembly polls. The new state government led by the National People’s Party, backed by the BJP, challenged the ban in the Supreme Court in November that allowed the transportation of already extracted coal till 31 January. A citizens’ report filed in the apex court names several state legislators who have stakes in the largely unregulated coal mining and transportation industry.

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