One can have no inkling about approaching a den of ‘black diamond’ in Meghalaya unless he really lands there. The atmosphere, the roads, the topography show no signs. If there are no wells (of coal) or dumping visible, there is no chance one imagine that the very earth he is standing is being constantly dug some feet under through ‘rat holes’. Coal mining elsewhere is different. Open-cast or so-called scientific mining (if rat-hole mining is not scientific, as being said so) allows a whole hill to be dug out as can be noticed in Ledo-Margherita coal belt in upper Assam. Commuters can smell the coal in the air kilometres before actually reaching the coal den. The atmosphere remains covered with thick black dust, day and night. The reason behind comparing the open-cast mining and rat-hole mining is the recent order by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) slapping a blanket ban on rat-hole and ‘illegal’ coal mining in the entire state of Meghalaya. The order is unprecedented, insensitive. There is no doubt of existence of a mafia in the coal trade which is the case with almost every flourishing trade. A huge section of people in coal-rich Jaintia Hills, the region where commercial coal mining started in early seventies, are highly dependent on the coal trade. It is not only the coal mafia who are befitted from the trade, as irresponsibly stated by the NGT without bothering to know the ground reality. The trade is entirely manual, requiring a huge work force. It should, however, not be the NGT’s lookout that the work force mostly consists of migrant labourers coming from Assam and some illegal migrants from Bangladesh and Nepal. Most of the transporters – hundreds of coal-laden trucks ply everyday to Assam and Bangladesh – are from the local communities. How will the government suddenly implement such an order that affects lives of thousands, if not lakhs, of people? The NGT’s concern is genuine. Many rivers especially in Jaintia Hills are ‘dead’ now due to ill impact of the coal mining. Villages in Assam’s Dima Hasao district in the downstream of Myntdu river must be bearing the brunt of coal mining without getting any benefit of the lucrative trade. People in Jaintia Hills, who are now used to drinking mineral water, are either not bothered or do not want to discuss reasons of depleting water sources. It would mean confronting a huge section of people in the trade that includes some high and mighty. The government did precious little all these years to save the water resources and now it cannot hastily implement the ban. Such total ban is not sustainable. There are such bans on forest felling, sand mining. The results are for everyone to see.
(Published as editorial in The Meghalaya Guardian on April 26, 2014)