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For years, Meghalaya could not decide who – cement plants or coal mines – is responsible for pollution in the rivers of Jaintia Hills region. Many rivers are considered ‘dead’ now because of no use of the water. People are so scared of consuming water in the region that even the poorest man opts for bottled water. There will be very few districts in the country where sale of bottled water is so high. And why not, the rivers look deadly yellow. Hectares of paddy fields turned yellow and dead forever as polluted water flow over there.

Jaintia Hills is rich both in limestone and coal. Cement plants have mushroomed while coal fields are getting exhausted one after another very fast. Some predict that at this rate of mining the coal will last just another 40-50 years. There has been an eternal blame game between the two industries when it comes to causing pollution to water and soil in the two districts of the region.

Most of the voices especially coming from non-government organisations including so-called student bodies back the coal mining and blame cement plants for pollution. The huge support for coal mining has an obvious reason – owners of coal mines that run into thousands are mostly indigenous people. On the other hand, there are only around 10 cement plants mostly owned by companies run by outsiders. Employment generation in coal mining sector is huge compared to cement plants.

But, facts are facts. Rivers are ‘dead’ and nothing grows in areas near coal dumping grounds which are tens of miles away from any cement plant or limestone mining. Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board (MSPCB) also submitted a report stating that coal mining is behind pollution caused to Lukha river. The river, since past seven years, turns blue and hundreds of fish die in February every year. In another blow to the locals, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) recently banned rat-hole coal mining. NGT observation that coal mining turned water of Kopili river acidic has a few takers in Jaintia Hills. They want to push the blame to the cement industries, who are small in number yet enjoy tremendous support from politicians and bureaucrats. Repeated allegations by environmentalists that limestone mining destroyed several cave systems, one of the densest in the world, have failed to put them under scanner.

Amid this blame game, the Mother Earth is bearing the brunt. Most affected are the people’s basic need for water and cultivable soil. Many farmers had resorted to petty jobs in coal sector which showed them easy money. Others joined the bandwagon later when they had no option left after their paddy fields turned arid, thanks to coal mining. If coal is to last for another 50 years, as some say, is it not the right time to think of an alternative?

(Published as editorial in The Meghalaya Guardian on May 9)

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