Guwahati: The public furore over 15 labourers trapped inside a rat-hole mine in Meghalaya's East Jaintia Hills district since December 13 has once again brought the politics of multi-crore scam in coal mining into focus.
The ban on rat-hole mining by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2014 and restrictions on limestone extraction, were major issues during the February 2018 Assembly elections in the state.
About 30 per cent of the 374 candidates who contested the elections were either owners of mines or have stakes in the largely unregulated coal mining and transportation industry.
Rat-hole mining involves digging of narrow tunnels, usually three-four feet high, for workers to enter and extract coal. The horizontal tunnels are often termed "rat holes" as each just about fits one person.
It became a major issue with politicians, cutting across party lines, claiming that the ban has hit the local economy hard and the lives of poor people dependent on mining.
The BJP accused the then Congress-led coalition government for "not doing enough" to combat the ban. The party, in its manifesto during the election in February, had promised to solve the mining problem within 180 days.
Political observers were of view that the Congress incurred the ire of mine owners and workers following the NGT ban, although previous Congress-led government had made an appeal to the tribunal to withdraw the ban.
During the election campaign, the National People's Party (NPP) president Conrad K. Sangma who is now the chief minister, had also accused the Congress government of not doing enough to resolve the issue, which resulted in loss of livelihood of thousands of families in Khasi, Jaintia and Garo Hills region.
"The Congress has destroyed local coal industry to suit the major companies which wanted to operate in the state," this is what the present chief minister reiterated during the election campaign while claiming that he had raised the issue in Parliament several times as MP from Tura.
Soon after assuming the office of chief minister, the six-party alliance government in Meghalaya, led by the NPP, has also formed a group of ministers to study the status of the NGT ban on coal mining.
The NPP promised voters that it would ensure that mining starts again in the state.
In fact, former chief minister Mukul Sangma's constituency, Ampati, also falls in the coal mining district of South Garo Hills. What's more, his wife and Mahendraganj MLA Dikkanchi D. Shira also own a coal mine.
Following the NGT ban back in 2014, Congress MP Vincent Pala had urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to roll out a rehabilitation scheme for coal mine owners, miners and those dependent on coal mining.
"The Centre should provide efficient legal assistance to the state and to the affected parties so that the NGT is halted in its tracks from causing deep social unrest, economic despondency and increase in insurgency activities," Shillong MP Mr Pala wrote in a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
He called the NGT's ban "iniquitous and harsh" and said it was imposed without providing an alternative employment or economic engagement to the coalmine owners and labourers.
In November, 2018, the Meghalaya government challenged the NGT ban in the Supreme Court. The appeal is pending before the apex court. Human rights lawyer Colin Gonsalves was appointed the amicus curiae in the case by the court.
Meghalaya has 576 million tonnes of sub-bituminous coal spread across South Garo Hills, West Khasi Hills, East Garo Hills, Jaintia Hills and East Khasi Hills.
In December 2018, a citizen's report on coal mining had named several ministers, MLAs and Opposition leaders who own mines and weighbridges. The report was submitted to Mr Gonsalves and filed in the Supreme Court. It also pointed out that the NGT ban on coal mining is being flouted as there is a conflict of interest with many public representatives involved in the mining business.
After the recent incident of miners getting trapped in a rat-hole mine, the chief minister said, "We are aware that illegal mining activity is going on and appropriate action will be taken at an appropriate time. This is not acceptable."
He also said that he had discussed the issue of NGT ban on coal mining with Union coal minister Piyush Goyal for restarating legal coal mining. According to the government, the state has suffered a revenue loss of `416 crore since the NGT ban.