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Meghalaya is staring at some turn of events on June 2. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) hearing that day is likely to decide the fate of ‘illegal’ rat-hole coal mining in the state. The day might tell us whether the biggest revenue earning sector can limp back, after theNGT ban brought it to a standstill last month. Mountains of coal dug from the rat holes spread across the coal-rich region are the testimony of sudden logjam to the flourishing, albeit damaging to environment, trade. The June-2 hearing inShillong might pave the way for their disposal while spelling strict dos and don’ts in the mining exercise. If the logjam continues, there is a possibility of intensive agitations although some miners have ruled out the chance. They expressed utmost respect to Indian judicial system saying it’s a matter of court and not state government.

Lack of safety for labourers and environment hazard are the two real stumbling blocks for coal trade in Meghalaya. The multiple and thin layers of coal running up to 500 feet below the ground are typical to Meghalaya’s topography where open cast mining, popularly understood as scientific mining, is not feasible and would be much more destructive. In such a scenario, rat-hole mining is the only option if coal has to be mined at all. The Coal India Ltd once made a failed attempt on “scientific” mining along Simsang river in Garo Hills. The layers of coal in Meghalaya being so thin making it impossible for any person to stand inside the holes, proper underground mining is not feasible let alone open cast mining. The need of the hour is to address the environment concern, which is being dealt by the NGT, besides the safety aspect.

Mining of the black diamond is not banned in the rest of the country. It is not that coal mining elsewhere is risk free and has not caused environmental damage. Margherita in neighbouring Assam where mining started late 19th century, decades ahead of Meghalaya, once produced 30 per cent of the country’s total output and now accounts for only 0.37 per cent. Mining in the upper Assam district of Tinsukia has eaten up hills after hills, definitely affecting environment but never faced a situation like Meghalaya is facing at this hour. The state should not be deprived of earning its royalty from the mineral. Livelihood of the people should not be undermined. There can be different mechanism to ensure minimum impact on the environment. Police and administration have to play a major role in implementing all guidelines, if NGT spells them out while lifting the ban.

(Published as editorial in The Meghalaya Guardian on May 30)

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