In April 2014, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned rat-hole mining in Meghalaya, an age-old exploitative practice in which largely children were sent down deep mining pits to extract coal. An entire industry was centered around this activity in the North-Eastern state.

In March, the NGT came down heavily on the Meghalaya government, citing large-scale violation of the ban. The tribunal observed that “the illegal mining has been going on despite specific and complete prohibitory orders. The state government has failed to check illegal mining effectively and has also not framed the mining policy, mining plan and the guidelines as directed under the orders of the tribunal".

Implementing the ban has not been easy. Earlier this year, tribunal-appointed observers noticed that in the garb of transporting coal (in June 2014, the NGT, while continuing the ban, allowed for transportation of coal already mined), fresh mining was still happening. The state government admitted that 308 cases of violation had been registered in 11 districts, and a total number of 605 trucks and 2,675.63 tonnes of coal had been seized. The state government, however, denies that children were involved in mining.

According to state government estimates, Meghalaya has 640 million tonnes of coal reserves. Environmentalists allege that it is mined illegally and unscientifically. Being predominantly a tribal state, the community or tribe owns the land, which means they have the right to use the land as they deem fit. The state has very little authority over the land-use pattern. It is this absence of regulation that has wreaked havoc on the state’s environment and forests. The NGT’S ban is in a sense the first major attempt to stop unregulated mining.

The coal pits become flooded in rainy season, increasing the risk to life. It was the death of 15 young labourers in a mine in July 2012 that highlighted the dangers of this perilous and unorganized industry with virtually no protection for the miners.

Also, the environmental impact of this unregulated mining can be seen everywhere. The Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board, in a report in 2012, had noted that the rivers were turning acidic from mine run-offs.

The Assam-based All Dimasa Students’ Union and Dima Hasao District Committee had filed a petition before the NGT, stating that the acidic discharge from these unregulated coal mines was polluting the Kopili river downstream.

In a 2010 report, child rights organization Impulse NGO Network had estimated that in the Jaintia Hills alone over 70,000 children under the age of 16 were engaged in rat-hole mining, which involved crawling through a labyrinth of dark tunnels.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) allege that children of migrant labour from Bangladesh and Nepal coming to the state for work were employed in the coal mining. They also allege that children could have been brought in through trafficking as well. In some families, these children were the main breadwinners, earning up to 200 a day.

When the ban was imposed last year, there was an uproar with miners fearing loss of livelihood and the mining industry arguing that it would lead to a huge economic loss. For NGOs and activists which had petitioned the NGT, it was a victory of sorts. Children aged 10-14 were engaged in this hazardous occupation, they say.

Hasina Kharbhih, the founder of Impulse NGO Network, says it’s important that this practice, which was exploiting children, has been highlighted and a ban imposed.

As the NGT and the state government battle it out, what is also needed is a comprehensive rehabilitation plan for the miners who were engaged in this life-threatening occupation.

Vijay Bedi is a Delh-based wildlife photographer and the winner of the Wildscreen Green Oscar Award. He is currently working on a documentary on amphibians of India.

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