New Delhi: Expressing concern over the slow progress of rescue operations of coal miners trapped in Meghalaya, the Supreme Court told solicitor general Tushar Mehta to inform it of the steps taken by the central government by Friday.

A bench headed by Justice A.K. Sikri termed it to be a “very serious" issue and observed that it was a question of “life and death". The court also asked the centre why the army had not been pressed into the rescue operation.

The apex court was responding to a plea seeking immediate steps by the centre and the state government to rescue 15 miners who have been trapped inside an illegal coal mine in Meghalaya’s East Jaintia Hills since 13 December. The miners were trapped after flood waters from the Lytein river gushed into the 370-feet deep rat-hole mine.

The petition sought a direction to the centre and other authorities to prepare a standard operating procedure (SOP) for rescue operations in mining accidents. It also wanted to know why heavy duty pumps by private companies, such as Kirloskar Brothers Ltd, were not being used for the rescue operation. The Kirloskars had offered four pumps of 100 horsepower each, while the Tatas offered two.

It also sought intervention of the army, the navy and the air force, which are already engaged in the rescue operation.

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) had imposed a blanket ban on unscientific and unsafe mining of coal in Meghalaya in 2014. The matter will next be heard on Friday.

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