It’s nearly a month since 15 workers were trapped by the flooding of a rathole coal mine in Meghalaya on 13 December. To find any of them alive now would be miraculous. Two more workers died at another coal mine on 6 January in the East Jaintia Hills which, along with areas in the Khasi Hills and Garo Hills, forms the state’s coal belt.

More may continue to die in this unregulated and exploitative industry that sustains livelihoods of the poor and sustains several of Meghalaya’s millionaires—and the state’s economy and politics.

At one level, rathole mining lacks respect for the lives of the poor, as an excellent, outraged editorial in Mint pointed out on 8 January. Others, too, have noted monumental callousness. The Sentinel of Assam wrote on 3 January of how Meghalaya’s government came to a standstill for 11 days after 22 December over Christmas and New Year holidays.

Scroll.in reported the chaos that set in after a week of relatively tepid response: “On December 24, the NDRF (National Disaster Response Force) turned off the two pumps at their disposal. ‘As everyone in the government celebrated Christmas, we stared at the shafts and at each other waiting for better pumps to arrive,’ said an NDRF official, who asked not to be identified." Additional chief secretary P.W. Ingty, the official in charge of the mission, went on leave.

It’s hardly surprising because, at another level, coal mining has for decades been Meghalaya’s dirtiest open secret.

In 2014, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned coal mining in Meghalaya. Despite an attempt in 2012 to introduce regulations through a mineral policy, it remained full of holes and, in practice, winks. NGT permitted the transportation of coal already mined in this organized-unorganized sector for which the state and several miners realized benefits. Meanwhile, the labour behind it remained a grey area of poverty-stricken locals, migrants from poorer districts of Assam, and from adjacent districts of Bangladesh, such as Sylhet, Sunamganj, Netrokona and Mymensingh.

In August 2018, an NGT bench upheld the 2014 order, which began with a public interest litigation filed by an Assam-based non-government organization representing the Dimasa people, who complained of water bodies being poisoned because of mining in Meghalaya. The 2018 order also noted that illegal mining had continued in this extra-legal industry—this last definition is my phrasing.

In November 2018, two intrepid environmental and human rights activists from Meghalaya, Agnes Kharshiing and Anita Sangma, went to the East Jaintia Hills to investigate stories they heard of transportation of not just old stock, but new: meaning, illegal mining. They were attacked. Kharshiing was hospitalized for more than a month. While some accused were rounded up, a key accused, Nidamon Chullet, a leader of the ruling National People’s Party, surrendered to police on 25 December. My take is: Chullet gave himself up to take the lesser rap of an attack on activists than run the risk of also finding himself rapped for the mining deaths.

For his part, chief minister Conrad Sangma, whose party is an ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party, has soft-pedalled the issue. In a videotaped statement on 4 January he said that he didn’t see the mining ban “as a solution right now". Then he tied himself up in knots: “Environment and safety of miners must be given a priority. The regulation must be as such that the economic condition should not be affected." He also maintained it was difficult for “the agencies and the police to keep a watch". Conrad, an alum of Wharton and London’s Imperial College, conceded little.

He also mirrored the protection offered to rathole mining by his predecessor Mukul Sangma of the Congress, the mover of the 2012 mining legislation. Mukul’s mining and geology minister, B.M. Lanong, had maintained that the policy would permit regulation of mining. He had said this: “There will be war between the stakeholders, miners and the government if we do away with the rathole mining practices."

The mines and geology portfolios are now retained by Conrad. So it goes.

This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights and runs on Thursdays.

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