- The collapse of a coal mine in Meghalaya’s East Jaintia Hills, trapping at least 15 workers and killing few has thrown the spotlight on a procedure known as “rat-hole mining”.
- Rat-hole mining involves digging pits ranging from 5 to 100 metres deep vertically into the ground, mostly on a hill side, like a narrow well, to reach the coal seam. These pits are so narrow that only one miner can enter at a time. A small room-sized area is dug out at the bottom. From this area, miners dig tunnels sideways to reach the coal seam and extract it.
- The coal from the tunnel or pit is taken out and dumped on nearby un-mined area from where it is carried to the larger dumping places near highways for its trade and transportation.
- These rat-hole mines are spread throughout Meghalaya, but are mostly concentrated in the Jaintia Hills, the South Garo Hills around the towns of Baghamara and Nangalbibra, and the area around Nongjri and Shallang in the West Khasi Hills.
Rat-hole mining is broadly of two types
- In side-cutting procedure, narrow tunnels are dug on the hill slopes and workers go inside until they find the coal seam. The coal seam in hills of Meghalaya is very thin, less than 2 m in most cases
- In the other type of rat-hole mining, called box-cutting, a rectangular opening is made, varying from 10 to 100 sq m, and through that is dug a vertical pit, 100 to 400 feet deep. Once the coal seam is found, rat-hole-sized tunnels are dug horizontally through which workers can extract the coal.
Banned, and why?
- The National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned it in 2014, and retained the ban in 2015, on grounds of it being unscientific and unsafe for workers.
- The state government has appealed the order in the Supreme Court.
- Rat-hole mining in Meghalaya had caused the water in the Kopili river (it flows through Meghalaya and Assam) to turn acidic.
- The water is severely affected by acid mine drainage originating from mines and spoils, leaching of heavy metals, organic enrichment and silting by coal and sand particles.
- The water also has high concentration of sulphates, iron and toxic heavy metals, low dissolved oxygen (DO) and high BOD, showing its degraded quality
- Entire roadsides in and around mining areas are used for piling of coal which is a major source of air, water and soil pollution.
- Off road movement of trucks and other vehicles in the area causes further damage to the ecology of the area
- It is also informed that there are umpteen number of cases where by virtue of rat-hole mining, during the rainy season, water flooded into the mining areas resulting in death of many… individuals including employees/workers
Violation of Laws
- The state government has been mum about the fact that mine workers work in the most inhumane conditions.
- The NGT found that mine owners don’t implement the rules of safe mineral explorationin rat-hole mining, despite the increase in the number of reported deaths of labourers.
- Also, non-implementation of the mineral policy and relevant labour lawshas enabled mine owners to completely ignore miners’ safety, all to make a quick buck