THE mining mafia, which undertakes illegal mining of coal, iron ore, sand, bauxite, chromite and sand, has tremendous reach across different Indian states.
And it is only when a disaster strikes illegal mining, as happened last month in the north-eastern state of Meghalaya, that a lot of noise is generated and government leaders talk of enforcing the ban on illegal mining and cracking down on the mafia.
But within weeks, things just settle down and the mafia deepens its operations across India. Last month saw one of the worst disasters when 15 miners were trapped — and are believed to have died by now — in an illegal ‘rat-hole’ coal mine in Meghalaya.
The illegal operators of rat-hole mining dig holes and make narrow tunnels to extract coal. In Meghalaya, the lush green state nestling in the hills, coal mining is a notorious activity undertaken by many illegal miners.
At Jaintia Hills, where the disaster struck the workers, they were illegally operating mines and were trapped in a 370-foot deep mine.
With strong political backing, private miners have been flouting the NGT orders against mining. About 5,000 rat-hole mines are operating in Meghalaya despite the ban
Rat-hole mining is a risky practice and involves young workers — in many cases, even children illegally deployed in the mines — who have to dig minor tunnels and extract coal from there. The practice is popular in Meghalaya as it is extremely competitive compared to normal mining.
And with growing demand for jobs, workers from Meghalaya and other nearby states — and even neighbouring countries — are deployed for the operations.
An NGO working in the state claimed recently that it surveyed rat-hole mines in Meghalaya between 2007 and 2013. It found there 1,200 children working in the mines. Many had been trafficked from Nepal and Bangladesh.
With large sums of money involved in these illegal operations, most political parties and government leaders do not bother about implementing the ban on such practices.
About five years ago, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had ordered an interim ban on rat-hole mining in Meghalaya, pointing out that it was unscientific and unsafe for workers.
The NGT had said that rat-hole mining led to water flooding the mines and taking the lives of many workers. It had also cited the views of an expert claiming that the mining activity in Meghalaya generated a lot of air, water and soil pollution.
But the state government has been backing the mining operations done by mostly small private players. The government claims that the state produces six million tonnes of coal because of the mining.
The Meghalaya government was opposed to the ban and has filed an appeal in the Supreme Court challenging the NGT order. But the government denies that illegal mining takes place in the state.
Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad K Sangma, who is a member of a regional party, has the backing of the BJP.
But the recent disaster has caused unrest in the government, especially with the NGT slapping a fine of Rs1 billion on the state government for its failure to curb illegal mining.
The tribunal also ordered the seizure of all cranes at the site and action on the 2,700-odd trucks that were carrying illegal coal.
The Congress, which is in the opposition, has also blasted the state government for its negligence. Mukul Sangma, a former chief minister and the Congress leader, said illegal mining happened in the Jaintia Hills of the state because of the greed of the people in power.
According to Sangma, both the National People’s Party and the BJP had promised voters that they would open up coal mining in the state if voted to power. “What they did was open up illegal coal mining within six months of government formation,” he said.
THE NGT had last August set up a three-member committee to look into the question of environmental restoration in Meghalaya. The panel had found that there were 24,000 mines in Meghalaya, and most of them were operating illegally.
The illegal operators had neither obtained licences nor had they leased out the mines from others. The neighbouring state of Assam had also prevented 70 trucks carrying coal from Meghalaya from crossing it as they did not have appropriate papers.
Many of the operators have links to major political parties in the state. In fact, nearly a third of the 374 candidates who contested the recent state assembly elections are believed to have been owners of the mines, or had stakes in the mining and transportation industry.
With strong political backing, the private miners have been flouting the NGT orders against mining and have also expanded their operations. There are an estimated 5,000 rat-hole mines in operation in Meghalaya despite the ban imposed by the NGT in 2014.
Illegal mining is in fact a major problem across many Indian states. The Allahabad High Court had recently directed the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to probe allegations of illegal sand mining across Uttar Pradesh.
The CBI now plans to investigate the role of Akhilesh Yadav, a former chief minister and leader of the Samajwadi Party. Yadav had also handled the mining portfolio for two years.
The mining mafia is active across several states of India. In September, for instance, a forest ranger in Madhya Pradesh was killed when he tried to stop a tractor laden with illegally-mined sand.
Illegal miners in the state have attacked police, forest and revenue department officials in the past. They have even attacked journalists reporting on their crimes.
The past few years have seen several attacks on government officials. In 2012, a senior police officer was crushed to death by a vehicle carrying illegally mined stone. Similarly, a forest guard and a police constable were also run over by vehicles about three years ago, when they tried to prevent illegally mined sand from being transported.
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, January 14th, 2019