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Better late than never. Meghalaya government’s plan to replenish degraded land in coal mining areas is a welcome step. The government should have done it much earlier. Now, it has come at the cost of a massive blow to the economy – the ban on coal trade, the biggest revenue earning sector of the state. It appears the National Green Tribunal (NGT) ban on the coal trade has prompted the government to take this quick step of announcing a separate fund for turning around the devastating landscape in the mining dens. The top soil suffered
maximum damage in Jaintia Hills where the mining started as a cottage industry around 45 years ago. Most of the farmers left their fields initially in the lure of easy money. Others had no option but to abandon farming as their fields turned barren by acidic water drained
from mining or dumping areas, making them unfit for even a grass to grow.

It is not yet clear as to how the government planned to take up the mammoth task of reclaiming the degraded land. There may be two approaches –government can take possession of the degraded land or eligible farmers be aided to replenish the land. Meghalaya being a Sixth Schedule state, the mechanism will be a complex one. In fact, the complex land tenure system is criticised for being a major factor of delay in progress of many development projects. The decades-old proposed railway head at Byrnihat is a glaring example. The government will have to deal with public concern, protest and even agitation as it goes ahead with the mega exercise, which if it wants mining to resume in the state.

Notwithstanding the hindrances, the first move towards reviving agriculture in coal mining areas is itself a bold step. Although it looks impossible at this stage, making such a plan itself is a good beginning. The government, which comprises many coal barons, was never open about coal mining taking a toll on thousands of farmers’ lives. But at the same time, the government was prompt in explaining how lives of common people were affected due to the NGT ban. The government should now shed this hypocrisy and show how impossible too can be made possible. Given a chance, the poor indigenous people engaged in petty businesses based on the huge migrant population in mining belts can very well earn their bread from farming in the future.

(Published as editorial in The Meghalaya Guardian on June 13)