If one googles for ‘rat-hole’, the first entries that come are all from Meghalaya. This term is exclusively used to mean mining in the state. It’s not a popular term associated with the coal industry, as it is in Meghalaya. Of course, the miners don’t like it. They wanted the tag be removed, long before the National Green Tribunal (NGT) came to picture, to ban the whole trade. The dispute over the term ‘rat hole’ has become more intense with a top government official claiming that such practice is no longer used in the state.

“The mining activity in Jaintia Hills is a small scale venture controlled by individuals who own the land; primitive mining method commonly known as ‘rat-hole’ mining is in practice in Meghalaya.” This was the observation made by the NGT while issuing the order to ban the ‘illegal practice’. The order also said, “We direct … to ensure that ‘rat-hole’ mining/illegal mining is stopped forthwith”. As such, ‘rat hole’ was an accepted term even for the media to describe the prevailing mining system. But the newly-appointed chief secretary, PBO Warjri, caused quite a stir by stating that ‘rat hole’ is a forgone practice to extract coal except for a few places in Sohra (Cherrapunjee) in minimal scale. By saying that ‘rat holes’ make no drastic damage to the environment, he meant that had it been ‘rat holes’ only, the question of NGT imposing the ban on coal mining would not have arisen. Now, it is for the law to decide whether his statement could come into conflict with the NGT.

The miners too have reasons to become unhappy by the remark of the bureaucrat, who took over the top post just three days ago. He minced no words in making it clear that the current mining practice in Jaintia Hills having the biggest reserve in the state is no longer traditional. The miners running from pillar to post to get the NGT ban removed have made all efforts to establish that their trade is a traditional practice of the tribals and hence should not be disturbed. Some of the miners, who are now worth hundreds of crores, are even looking for a possibility to give it a tag of cottage industry. ‘Rat hole’ or not, the haphazard way of coal mining has caused massive environmental damage, making the water of most of the rivers unfit for any use, especially in Jaintia Hills. ‘Development’ at such massive cost is not acceptable. The miners must take the responsibility not to harm the nature to such great extent, if mining is allowed in future.

(Published as editorial in The Meghalaya Guardian on July 4, 2014)